A Smoldering Issue

January 01, 1998 4 min read

When lunch time rolls around at the public high school in rural Greene County, North Carolina, students in need of a cigarette know right where to go. As long as they have their parents’ written permission, they can smoke on the school patio without fear of being hassled by school staff. It’s the same lunch-time routine at the public high school in Johnsonville, South Carolina, only students there have to get their nicotine fix in the school parking lot.

At a time when the tobacco industry has agreed to spend millions of dollars to stamp out smoking among the nation’s young people and President Clinton has placed anti-smoking efforts at the top of his public health agenda, more than a few school districts around the country are bucking the trend and refusing to make their campuses smoke-free zones.

“It’s tradition,” says Steve Mazingo, superintendent of the 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, 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 such customs ought to be changed. “Children under 18 shouldn’t smoke under any circumstances or in any location,” says Lauria, a spokesman for the Tobacco Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based association of tobacco-product manufacturers.

Last summer, the nation’s leading cigarette makers reached a tentative settlement with 40 state attorneys general 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 companies agreed to spend $500 million for anti-smoking campaigns targeted at kids. They also agreed to ban cigarette advertising on billboards and outdoor signs and to eliminate human images and cartoon characters, such as Joe Camel, from all advertisements and promotions. If they fail to meet the goal, stiff penalties would kick in.

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

All 50 states bar retailers from selling cigarettes to minors, and most fine 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; 19 states go even further, imposing fines on underage smokers if they are found carrying cigarettes. Fines for tobacco possession, a misdemeanor, are usually less than $35.

Prompted by new laws and intensified concern about smoking, most school districts have also adopted policies to discourage kids 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 by the Journal of School Health. Not all of those districts were in tobacco-growing states.

Both tobacco-industry spokesmen and child-health advocates say this sort of tolerance undermines their anti-smoking efforts. “All segments of society must pull together to reduce youth smoking, and schools that allow students to smoke are thwarting that effort,” Lauria says.

William Novelli, president of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, agrees: “We need to depend on educators to attack this thing. 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 in October by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that of the children living in the United States today, more than 5 million will die prematurely from cigarette-related illnesses unless current smoking rates are reversed.

Still, officials in some school districts refuse to budge. Banning on-campus smoking, they say, would penalize students who are addicted and create a hazardous environment. “The fact is that in any school in the state or the nation, you’re going to find kids smoking,” says Kenneth Watson, a spokesman for South Carolina’s small Florence County School District 5.

Students forced to smoke in restrooms, he says, may discard cigarette butts in trash cans and start a fire. Permitting supervised smoking outdoors, he explains, “is just a way to monitor the situation so they are not in the building smoking.”

Although this kind of leniency confounds anti-smoking advocates, they continue to apply pressure on other fronts. “We can’t depend on one single strategy,” Novelli says. “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.”

And that means smoking areas for teachers and other staff members have to go, too. “Teachers are role models,” Novelli says, “and for kids to see smoke billowing out of a teachers’ smoking area would be like forbidden fruit.”

—Jessica Portner