States Crack Down On Teen Smokers

Print More

Several states have cracked down on teen tobacco use by shifting the consequences of smoking to youth directly - imposing fines and a wide range of penalties ranging from community service to loss of a driver's license to even six months in a juvenile detention center.

Florida, Idaho, Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas have all passed laws targeting minors' consumption of tobacco that places the burden of teen smoking on the teens themselves. Proponents of get tough policies cite the failure of education programs to curb teen smoking as justification for these measures, which also include using undercover police officers and school drug testing for nicotine to catch teen smokers. This emphasis on youth results from studies that found if people do not begin smoking by age 21, they are unlikely to ever start.

Despite a proposed $368.5 billion settlement between tobacco companies and state attorneys general partly intended to dissuade youth smoking, a number of experts believe the only way to decrease youth smoking levels is through a larger increase in cigarette taxes, such as President Clinton's proposed $1.50 per pack increase. The federal settlement calls for a ban on billboard tobacco advertising, removal of cigarette vending machines and a halt on producing clothing that carries tobacco brand names. Similar measures have been proposed in Florida, where an $11 billion settlement garnered $200 million for a two-year youth anti-smoking initiative. Under the agreement, tobacco firms must cooperate in keeping kids from using vending machines to buy cigarettes, remove billboard ads within 1,000 feet of schools and replace those ads with anti-smoking messages. Part of the remaining $11 billion will be spent on children's health insurance, mental health services and substance abuse prevention and treatment. Whether these state and federal funds will be spent effectively enough to curb teen smoking, however, is debatable.

Still, others believe criminal punishment aimed at teen tobacco users will be most effective. In North Carolina, youths who buy tobacco could be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to 30 days of community service. Florida, Minnesota and Texas all passed statues threatening to suspend the driving privileges of minors caught with tobacco. In Idaho, offenders can be fined $300 - or face imprisonment in juvenile detention for up to six months. In Nebraska, undercover police officers stake out areas where students gather to smoke, or police film them with hidden cameras. These youth are then fined anywhere from $35 to $100. In Indiana, some schools screen athletes and students who drive to school for nicotine in random drug tests - even if the students are over 18.

"I really question some of the methods," Kathryn Kahler-Vose, communications director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said. "We think it's important first to go after the retailers and challenge the marketers. Only after you go after the adults can you place responsibility on the kids. If you have lax enforcement, it won't make a difference, [and] most of the time these are not enforced."

- Jennifer Gauck