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Sunday, Sep. 17, 2006


Is ban on underage smoking working?

Officials hope it will deter lighting up; teens say it won't stop them


DEBORAH HIRSCH

Underage smokers, beware.

A month ago, a state law made it illegal for those under 18 to possess or use tobacco, punishable by a fine or court-ordered drug education or community service.

Lawmakers and supporters say this could deter students from taking up an unhealthy habit. But is it working?

So far, law enforcement officials have issued at least 25 citations in York and Lancaster counties.

Local teenagers point out that it isn't difficult to find places to smoke.

And national anti-smoking agencies argue that the plan could backfire by giving teens another reason to rebel.

Officials say it will take time to see the law's effects.

"All of our approaches to curbing health care costs and making South Carolina a healthier state in some ways seem to be after the fact," said Rep. Scott Talley, R-Spartanburg, who sponsored a House version of the bill. "Hopefully this is a way that some people might not pick up a habit that ends up costing all of us in the end."

At least now, Talley added, the state can back up existing tobacco laws with real consequences. It's been illegal for minors across the country to purchase tobacco for years, Talley said, but federal laws don't give them any reason not to try because only the sellers face penalties.

With this law, South Carolina joins 36 other states that prohibit underage possession or use of tobacco, according to American Lung Association records.

Police won't go out on anti-smoking raids -- "it's just spot enforcement right now," said Lt. Mike Peek, with the Rock Hill Police Department.

If officers catch minors smoking, they issue a $25 civil fine and an optional court date. The minors, however, can't be arrested for smoking, or have it appear on a criminal record.

If the offenders go to court, the judge could decide to waive the fine upon completion of community service or a state-sanctioned tobacco cessation program. Or, the judge could just find the smoker guilty, then costing him a total of $102 after adding in the court fees. If the smoker doesn't pay the fine or show up to court, the court sends notice to the S.C. Department of Motor Vehicles to restrict that person's license for 90 days.

Educating smokers

The Department of Health and Environmental Control has approved four tobacco education programs, including one in Clover.Clover High Principal Ron Wright started the Not On Tobacco (NOT) class two years ago as part of his personal mission to cut down smoking in school. Student smoking is already prohibited on school grounds at all four school districts in York County. But Clover is the only one to require that students who break the rules go through a tobacco course.

Before Wright started the class in fall 2004, students caught smoking were required to have a parent conference, three days of in-school suspension on the second offense, three days of out-of-school suspension on the third offense, an anti-tobacco class on the fourth, and serious disciplinary action on the fifth.

"The parent conference and the in-school suspension was not the end of the world to the student so it did not really become a deterrent until they faced out-of-school suspension," Wright explained. "I had huge misgivings about kids being suspended over smoking so I just wanted to do something that was more educational and less punitive."

Under the school's revised tobacco policy, students found smoking would first attend the class, then do 10 hours of community service if caught a second time. Offenses after that result in disciplinary hearings.

The class runs on Thursdays after school and offenders must attend four of the hourlong sessions. Their teacher is Wright himself.

"Why do people smoke?" Wright asked the six students before him one recent Thursday.

One out of seven people who smoke dies from it, he continued. Cigarettes contain 400,000 chemicals. We've all seen pictures of the nasty, if not deadly, medical conditions that smoking can lead to, he said, showing them images of lungs turned black, blood clots that cost a woman several fingers, teeth stained yellow-brown.

"So why do people still smoke?" he asked again.

"I've been smoking for four years, and I'm addicted to it now and it calms me down," one girl said.

"Addiction," Wright wrote on the board, followed by one check, another, two more, as the rest of the class echoes her response. Wright expected that several students would say this. It surprised him at first, he said, because he thought most students smoked to be cool.

He dedicates a class session to quitting smoking, which includes resources students could turn to. Realistically, Wright said he knows he can't expect students to shake an addiction after being forced to go through an anti-tobacco course. But, he said, he can at least give them facts about smoking, and most importantly, point out marketing campaigns deliberately designed to attract young smokers.

Whether or not the course makes students rethink their choice to light up, fewer have been caught at school since it started. The number of referrals for smoking went down from 85 in 2003-04, just before the policy changed, to 62 last year. At the same time, enrollment has gone up. Wright said he's also noticed fewer repeat offenders.

So far this year, the Clover school resource officer has issued 22 referrals. Everyone who's caught has to attend the course, even if they were too old to be affected by the law or caught before it started.

Perhaps the fines could cut down referrals even more, Wright said. It can't hurt.

"It's sent a certain mixed signal to kids to tell them it's illegal to buy cigarettes, it's illegal to smoke in schools because of facilities laws, but it's OK to smoke outside of that," Wright said.

More attractive to teens?

National anti-tobacco advocates don't agree, arguing that outlawing smoking altogether could create a bigger problem.

"It almost makes tobacco look more forbidden and therefore attractive to teens and a new way to rebel and to assert their personalities," said Patrick Reynolds, spokesman for Smokefree America & Tobaccofree.org, based in Los Angeles.

"What you're doing is criminalizing the victim," added Stanton Glantz, with the Center for Tobacco Control at the University of California-San Francisco. "The real problem is the cigarette companies, and their marketing and promotional activity. There's no evidence that these laws do anything to prevent kids from smoking, and there may even be a boomerang effect. It's a distraction, and it wastes a lot of resources."

A better solution, Glantz and Reynolds said, would be counter-marketing tobacco companies, increasing cigarette taxes or imposing smoke-free laws limiting indoor smoking in all public areas. Studies have shown that smoke-free laws cut down on teen smoking as well as secondhand smoke, Glantz said.

The Fort Mill school board has been considering making its campus smoke free, even for faculty, but the discussion was tabled at the last meeting.

What about the Clover smokers in Wright's class? Will the new law make any difference to them?

"No, it just makes me stop smoking in school," one student said.

Nah, another one chimed in, "You'll find better places to do it."

Johnathan Ellis, 17, a junior who just paid his fine, said it wasn't fair to cite students and not their families, who may share some of the responsibility by supplying the cigarettes.

"If they make it illegal, more teenagers will want to smoke," Ellis said. "If they don't want us to smoke, they should ban cigarettes in the United States."

Local School Policies

Smoking policies at local school districts, listed in order of offense

CLOVER: 1 -- mandatory class; 2 -- 10 hours community service; 3 -- discipline hearing

FORT MILL: 1 -- parent conference before student can return to class; 2 -- three-day, in-school suspension; 3 -- three-day, out-of-school suspension and parents notified in writing; 4 -- recommended for expulsion

ROCK HILL: 1 -- parent conference and either smoking cessation after-school class, two days of in-school suspension or eight hours of work; 2 -- either two more days of in-school suspension or eight hours of work; 3 -- two days of out-of-school suspension; 4 -- recommended for expulsion

YORK: 1 -- parent notified and two days of in-school suspension; 2 -- two days of out-of-school suspension; 3 -- five days of out-of-school suspension; 4 -- possibly recommended for expulsion.

LANCASTER: Policy states that administrators decide what discipline is appropriate, it could range from notifying parents or law enforcement to sending the student home or worse.


Contact Deborah Hirsch: 803-327-8506