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Despite Heat on Tobacco Producers, Some Schools Still Permit Smoking

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At lunch time in Greene County, N.C., high school students take cigarette breaks on an outdoor patio, as long as they have their parents' written consent.

High school students in Johnsonville, S.C., are permitted a periodic nicotine fix in a school parking lot if an adult is present and the teenagers have notes from home.

While the tobacco industry has been pressed to commit millions of dollars to stamping out youth smoking and President Clinton has placed anti-smoking efforts at the top of his public-health agenda, more than a few districts around the country are bucking the trend and refusing to make their campuses smoke-free zones.

"It's tradition," said Steve Mazingo, the superintendent of North Carolina's Greene County public schools. He, in fact, can't recall when students 16 or older weren't allowed to light up a cigarette at school. The rural district of 2,900 students also has outdoor smoking areas for teachers. Though he doesn't condone the habit, Mr. Mazingo understands it: "We are a very small agricultural county, and our traditional cash crop here is tobacco. ... It's who we are."

But Tom Lauria says that custom ought to be changed.

"Children under 18 shouldn't smoke under any circumstances or in any location," said Mr. Lauria, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, a Washington-based association of tobacco-product manufacturers.

The nation's leading cigarette makers reached a tentative settlement with 40 state attorneys general last summer that would hold the tobacco industry financially responsible for reducing adolescent smoking by 60 percent over the next decade. To help achieve that goal, the tobacco companies agreed to spend $500 million for anti-youth-smoking campaigns. They also agreed to ban cigarette advertising on billboards and outdoor signs and will eliminate human images and cartoon characters, such as Camel cigarettes' Joe Camel mascot, from all advertisements and promotions.

If they failed to meet their goals--reducing youth smoking by 30 percent in five years, 50 percent in seven years, and 60 percent in a decade--the companies would be obligated to pay $80 million a year for each percentage point they fell short. ("Experts Question Plausibility of Pact's Aim To Curb Youth Smoking," July 9, 1997.)

It is still unclear whether the agreement, which must be ratified by Congress and signed by President Clinton, will go forward. Mr. Clinton recently said he would sign off on a deal only if it guaranteed federal regulatory authority over the tobacco industry. The president has said he also wants to strengthen the accord's enforcement of all state and federal laws prohibiting minors' access to tobacco products.

Inside and Out

All 50 states bar retailers from selling cigarettes to minors, and many impose costly fines on vendors if they are caught. But in addition to penalties for sellers, many states in the past decade have adopted laws to punish minors for buying, using, or even possessing tobacco products. Thirty-four states fine minors if they are caught buying or using tobacco products, and 19 states go even further, imposing fines on underage smokers if they are found, for instance, carrying a pack of cigarettes. Fines for a minor's possession of tobacco, a misdemeanor, are usually less than $35.

Prompted by a new federal law and intensified concern about smoking, most school districts have also adopted policies to discourage youths 18 or younger from smoking.

Since Congress enacted the Pro-Children Act of 1994, which requires districts to prohibit smoking in any indoor facility, 95 percent of districts have adopted policies to make their buildings smoke-free.

But the law doesn't apply to outdoor areas. As of 1995--the latest year for which data are available--about 19 percent of districts had not adopted a policy banning smoking by students on school grounds, according to a survey published in the October 1995 issue of the Journal of School Health. Although some of those districts were in tobacco-growing states, others were not.

Zero Tolerance

Tolerance of on-campus smoking undermines the consensus that young people should not smoke, both tobacco-industry spokesmen and child-health advocates say.

"All segments of society must pull together to reduce youth smoking, and schools that allow students to smoke are thwarting that effort," Mr. Lauria said.

"We need to depend on educators to attack this thing," agreed William D. Novelli, the president of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, an advocacy group in Washington. "To let kids think that smoking is OK is a very serious mistake."

One in 10 8th graders and one in four high school seniors smoke cigarettes daily, according to a report released this month by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

People who smoke cigarettes risk addiction and long-term health problems, such as cancer and heart disease, and the earlier they begin smoking, the greater the risks, health experts say. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta estimates that more than 5 million of today's children in the United States eventually will die prematurely from smoking-related illnesses unless current rates are reversed.

But some school leaders argue that banning on-campus smoking is wrong because it penalizes students who may have an addiction, creates a hazard by prompting students to smoke secretly, or is simply unrealistic.

"The fact is that in any school in the state or the nation, you're going to find kids smoking," said Kenneth Watson, a spokesman for the 1,500-student Florence County (S.C.) School District 5 that includes Johnsonville High School.

Designated smoking areas provide safety benefits, some educators say. They note that students who smoke in restrooms and discard cigarette butts in trash cans may start a fire.

Permitting supervised smoking outdoors "is just a way to monitor the situation so they are not in the building smoking," Mr. Watson said.

Same Rules for Teachers?

But allowing students to smoke at school, critics of such policies counter, legitimizes an activity that federal and state governments have been trying--often unsuccessfully--to stop. A recent report published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that even in the face of losing federal aid, states have found it difficult to curtail illegal cigarette sales to minors.

What's needed is a comprehensive, consistent anti-smoking policy, health groups say.

"We can't depend on one single strategy," Mr. Novelli said. "We have to combine youth access with higher prices and public education and reducing smoking in public places. We have to use all the tools in the toolbox."

Mr. Novelli and other child-health advocates say that means smoking areas for teachers and staff members have to go, too.

"Teachers are role models, and for kids to see smoke billowing out of a teachers' smoking area would be like forbidden fruit," he said.

But Mr. Mazingo, the Greene County superintendent, said some teachers already resent being shuttled outside to engage in what is for adults a legal activity. "It's not fair to teachers to put them outside when the law allows them to do it," Mr. Mazingo said.

Web Only

Web Resources
  • The National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids is an alliance of such national health advocacy organizations as the American Medical Association, the American Heart Association, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Its Web site contains the center's statement on the tobacco industry settlement.
  • Read a copy of the June 20, 1997, tobacco industry settlement, which outlines the restrictions on marketing and advertising, the penalties, and other aspects of the settlement, from the State Tobacco Information Center.
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