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PHILADELPHIA (Reuters Life!) - The Philadelphia City Council on Thursday stepped up efforts to curb under-age smoking by sharply increasing fines on retailers who sell cigarettes to children.
Philadelphia has more smokers under 18 than any other large U.S. city, according to a recent study by the city's Department of Public Health.
The council voted unanimously for a bill hiking fines for selling tobacco to under-18s to a maximum of $2,000 per violation, from $300.
"There was a need to increase the fine in order to better enforce and deter people from selling to people under the age of 18," said Derek Green, an attorney for Councilwoman Marian Tasco, who sponsored the bill.
Existing fines were not enough of a deterrent, because they were seen by some retailers as just the cost of doing business, Green said.
The health department study conducted in 2009 found 3.6 percent of Philadelphians between ninth and 12th grades smoked cigarettes on 20 out of 30 days, the highest rate among comparable-sized cities. The rate rose to 11 percent when data included those who said they had smoked at some point in the last 30 days.
Youth smoking rates in other major cities ranged from 2.4 percent in New York to 3.4 percent in Seattle. In most cases, rates were higher among whites than other ethnic groups.
Philadelphia's young smokers are encouraged by comparatively low prices and by one of the highest rates of tobacco retailers per capita.
More than a third of young smokers buy their own cigarettes, the highest rate among large U.S. cities, and more than 75 percent of tobacco retailers are within two blocks of a school, the survey found.
"Despite declines over the last 20 years, rates of youth smoking have plateaued more recently, highlighting the need for continued public health intervention," the report said.
It also found young people are starting to smoke earlier. Smoking as early as ninth grade is on the rise, and exceeds the rate in 12th grade, increasing the likelihood those young smokers will keep the habit as adults.
Reporting by Jon Hurdle; Editing by Jerry Norton