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Published in Print: September 20, 2000, as Ala. District To Test Athletes For Use of Tobacco, Alcohol

Ala. District To Test Athletes For Use of Tobacco, Alcohol

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Public schools in Hoover, Ala., will begin testing student athletes for tobacco and alcohol use this week, under a controversial new policy that stretches student drug testing beyond the traditional focus of hard drugs.

Secondary students in the suburban district outside Birmingham will be thrown off the football team or the cheerleading squad not only for using such drugs as cocaine, marijuana, barbiturates, or heroin. Under the plan adopted unanimously by the school board in June, taking one puff on a cigarette or drinking a beer at a party could get them banished from sports.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court in 1995 gave all districts the green light to test athletes for drug use, more than 100 districts in 20 states have required students to take urine tests to play sports or participate in extracurricular activities.

But only a few districts have opted to screen student athletes for tobacco and alcohol use. Hoover is believed to be the only district in Alabama to do so.

'Gateway Drug'

"Tobacco is the gateway drug that leads to all the other problems," argued Ron Swann, the athletic director for the 10,000-student district. "This [policy] is to give [student athletes] a deterrent so that when they are tempted at a party, they have an excuse not to smoke," he said.

A host of health problems, including emphysema, asthma, and lung cancer, are associated with smoking cigarettes, Mr. Swann pointed out. Moreover, it's illegal in Alabama for a person younger than 19 to use tobacco products or consume alcohol, he added.

Under the policy, Hoover officials will test a random selection of 250 athletes who play on the district's 22 sports teams in grades 7 through 12. Students will be tested at the beginning of the season—as they are this week—and then a small number of students will be tested every other week on random days throughout the year.

An independent company will collect urine samples and screen each student for 10 substances, including cocaine, marijuana, amphetamines, barbiturates, and heroin. To test for tobacco, the contractor will screen for cotitine, a substance that remains in the metabolism after nicotine exposure.

At $25 to $30 a test, Mr. Swann estimates the program will cost the district $50,000 a year to conduct a total of 1,500 tests. If students are caught once, they will be suspended from 25 percent of games; a second time, they will be suspended from sports for the semester; the third time, they will be benched for the whole school year.

Arthur Spitzer, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer based in Washington, criticized the district's policy last week, describing it as the latest move by schools to invade students' privacy. "What kids do away from school is not a school's business," he asserted.

The ACLU has long opposed any kind of drug testing and continues to battle such policies in state courts. Mr. Spitzer said the Hoover policy was particularly troubling because the argument that smoking cigarettes would endanger players' safety was specious. Unlike using such drugs as cocaine and barbiturates, he argued, smoking cigarettes doesn't necessarily "disable" someone from excelling in sports.

"Although it's a dirty habit, millions smoke tobacco, and professional athletes have smoked and chewed tobacco for generations, and so it seems ridiculous to say if a teen smokes a cigarette, he is a danger to himself or others," Mr. Spitzer said.

In the 1995 case, the Supreme Court cited safety as a reason for allowing athletes to be tested.

'We Are Serious'

Dr. Richard Schwartz, a pediatrician at Inova Hospital for Children in Falls Church, Va., and an expert on adolescent drug use, pointed out that drug tests can be easy to circumvent.

"There must be 10 advertisements a month in [the magazine] High Times for products to adulterate urine," he said.

In addition, he said, "because alcohol is going to be out of your system in a few hours even if you're totally drunk, you aren't going to find it in your urine. For tobacco, it's out in eight to 12 hours," Dr. Schwartz said.

Hoover school officials said the policy was not prompted by unusually high levels of cigarette use by students.

A recent district survey of the school system's one high school found that 50 percent of seniors said they had smoked a cigarette in the past 30 days—about the national average.

As he was preparing his athletes for the tests last week, Mr. Swann, the athletic director, seemed confident the policy would have a positive effect.

"We want students to know we are serious," he said. "This isn't going to be something you can beat."

Vol. 20, Issue 3, Page 11

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