Citing the "moral outrage" of the estimated $1.23 billion worth of cigarettes illegally sold to children every year, Health and Human Services Secretary Louis Sullivan yesterday called for a ban on cigarette vending machines, the licensing of tobacco retailers, and tougher enforcement of laws prohibiting tobacco purchases by minors.

"We have found it convenient to look the other way as cigarettes are openly sold to our nation's youth," Sullivan said, adding that as long as children begin smoking and "become addicted before they can making a mature judgment, we will never succeed in achieving a smoke-free society."

Sullivan's comments, which came before a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee, are the latest salvo in his war against cigarette smoking. But his suggestions drew immediate criticism from industry groups, which said vending machines contribute little to the problem of underage smoking. And his legislative proposals were attacked by some members of Congress as inadequate and contradicted by other Bush administration policies.

"A much stronger effort is required to achieve adequate enforcement," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said. "But Secretary Sullivan's half-hearted plan to reach this goal is certain to be ineffective."

The centerpiece of the secretary's remarks was his proposal to ban cigarette vending machines which, according to an HHS Inspector General report that Sullivan released yesterday, account for 16 percent of cigarette sales to minors.

But the vending machine industry, which has been battling efforts by states and communities to pass anti-machine ordinances, says that figure is less than 10 percent.

"Most cigarette vending machines are not in places where teenagers can get at them," said Mark Dlugoss, editor of Automatic Merchandiser, a monthly trade magazine. Industry studies show that about 80 percent of cigarette machines are in bars, factories, military bases and other locations not easily accessible to juveniles.

Twenty years ago cigarettes machines dominated the vending industry, but several industry spokesmen said the machines were gradually being phased out, and that only about 3 percent of cigarettes were now sold that way.

Sullivan's plan would also encourage states to enforce laws already on the books in 44 states against sales of tobacco to children. These laws are being "blatantly ignored", Sullivan said.

In a nationwide survey of state law enforcement agencies, HHS was able to find only five states that knew of tobacco law violations. And among those five, only 32 violations had been reported.

"Thus, nationally we can document 32 violations of the sales laws, while we know that almost 1 billion packs of cigarettes are illegally sold to our youngsters every year," Sullivan said. "This is truly a national disgrace." Sullivan suggested that states make tobacco sales to minors a civil rather than criminal offense, which we said would make it easier to assess fines and process cases. He also advocated a system of licensing tobacco retailers similar to the one used to control the sale of alcoholic beverages.

Sullivan said, however, that HHS would not push for federal legislation authorizing these changes. He said that relying on states to enact the proposal would be more cost effective than creating a new federal bureaucracy, and that individual states had not acted until now only because they had not been made "aware of how serious the problem is."

A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that the federal government receives $152 million in taxes from tobacco sales to minors. The study said that means every nine days children pay federal cigarette taxes equivalent to the entire $3.5 million budget for the HHS Office of Smoking and Health, the only federal agency devoted solely to smoking.

Some members of Congress also said that if the federal government didn't take action then the problem might not be solved.

"The White House tactic of paying lip service to important national goals while rejecting federal action is irresponsible," Kennedy said. "We cannot simply dump our major national problems on the states."

Currently six states -- Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming -- have no laws prohibiting the sales of cigarettes to minors.

At the committee hearing, Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) also questioned Sullivan about the Bush administration's recent attempts to remove trade restrictions on the sale of U.S.-made cigarettes overseas.

"You advocate restrictions on the advertising and sale of cigarettes here, yet other parts of the government are aggressively promoting the sale of cigarettes {overseas}," Breaux said to Sullivan. "To me, it seems like we ought to have a consistent policy."

Sullivan responded that he did not see the two policies as contradictory, since tobacco remains a legal product and the United States has an obligation to see that fair trade principles are observed.