When it comes to deciding which laws are the most important ones to enforce, most people would place a high priority on those regulations that protect the health of children.

With that in mind, it's especially disappointing that the state of Oregon - which often has been a leader in tobacco prevention - doesn't even deliver a slap on the wrist to retailers who sell cigarettes to minors.

In Oregon, it is supposedly against the law to sell tobacco products to anyone younger than 18 years of age. That particular law exists for good reason: Cigarettes are highly addictive. They become a lifelong burden to those who fall prey to them. And even for young people who merely experiment with smoking, cigarettes cause lasting lung damage that lingers for decades.

If adults choose to put their lives at risk in return for the dubious pleasures of smoking, then that's their informed choice. But state officials should do all within their power to keep cigarettes or other forms of tobacco out of the mouths of children.

Unfortunately, the state isn't fulfilling its obligations. As reported in the Portland Tribune earlier this month, the state keeps track of how many retail stores make illegal sales to minors, but it doesn't issue citations when it finds such violations.

Enforcement officers for the state personally witness more than 100 illegal cigarette sales every year, but they simply record the data for federal purposes and do nothing to make the offending establishments pay a price for their transgressions. The result of this laxity is, predictably, an increasing rate of illegal sales to minors - a rate that the state is happy to record, while also ignoring the offenders.

Another flaw in Oregon's anti-tobacco effort is its lack of a licensing program for cigarette retailers. In states where stores are required to have a license to sell tobacco, the license fees help support better enforcement of laws. Officers then are able to levy fines, which in turn provide even more revenue for further enforcement.

Oregon's seeming indifference toward its tobacco laws presents an obvious opportunity for legislative action. The goal should not be to employ police-state tactics against retailers who are involved in an otherwise legal form of commerce, but rather to protect people who are too young to make fully responsible choices about tobacco. The Legislature, when it meets for a short session in February 2011, should vote to require both the licensing of tobacco retailers and a full-scale enforcement program that holds stores accountable when they sell to minors.

Other states have found that when they actually enforce their laws, teenagers suddenly have less access to tobacco. That's hardly a surprising outcome - and it's one that Oregon must pursue for the health of its children.

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