Cities and Towns Enact Laws To Snuff Out Teen Smoking

Local measures spread across US as tobacco use rises among minors

SCHOOL is out and, as students tumble from St. Lawrence High School here into a numbing snowstorm, the heat is on.

Gangs of students congregate, taking note of several police cruisers nearby. Suddenly, from an unmarked patrol car, Officer Edward Clancy swoops upon the scene and plucks a smoldering cigarette butt from the snow at the feet of a ninth grader. One more under-age youth is nabbed in the no-smoke dragnet in Burbank, Ill.

Burbank is one of scores of communities across the country to crack down on teenage smoking.

For decades, local governments relied solely on state laws to curb tobacco use among minors, but now they are formulating their own ordinances - and sometimes using local police to enforce them. The trend is the latest in a broad antismoking campaign to sweep the United States, which has included bans or restrictions on smoking in restaurants, work places, and other public buildings.

In the Chicago area, 22 suburbs have enacted laws to prevent retailers from selling tobacco products to minors or to bar outright the possession of cigarettes by people under age 18. Three more towns are considering a crackdown.

''These kinds of laws are popping up in cities and towns all over the country,'' says Elizabeth Bridgers, spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society. The tobacco industry, even with its substantial war chest and political leverage, would find it hard to quash an opposition involving thousands of cities and towns, she says.

Instead, the tobacco industry is combatting such grass-roots efforts at the state level. It has allied with retailers and, in 19 states, has successfully promoted laws that bar localities from enacting anti-tobacco measures that vary from state law.

State legislation is awaiting gubernatorial signatures in Indiana and Utah and is gaining support of lawmakers in 12 other states, says Peter Fisher of the Coalition on Smoking or Health in Washington, an antismoking group. The revised laws modify restrictions on retailing, usually to the advantage of cigarette makers, he says.

The tobacco industry says it opposes smoking by minors and denies assertions it targets much of its $6 billion annual advertising and promotion budget toward teenagers. The industry has pushed for state laws preempting local antismoking ordinances in an effort to prevent the emergence of conflicting regulations from one town to another. Such a patchwork of local laws would badly hinder the lawful sale of tobacco, says Walker Merryman, vice president of the Tobacco Institute in Washington.

Local governments have cracked down primarily because of a recent surge in cigarette use among minors, say industry opponents. Eighth and 10th graders have increasingly taken to tobacco since 1991, and the proportion of smoking 12th graders has risen since 1992, according to findings of the University of Michigan Survey Research Center.

Moreover, teenagers can buy cigarettes more easily than in 1989, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Finally, local officials have apparently found inspiration in widely publicized plans by the Clinton administration to tighten restrictions on the sale, marketing, and promotion of tobacco products. For example, the Food and Drug Administration has proposed a complete ban on vending-machine sales of tobacco products.

But some antismoking campaigners say that rallying police against cigarettes inadvertently helps the tobacco industry. Police crackdowns bolster tobacco's marketing appeal among youth by casting cigarettes as a ''forbidden fruit'' and smoking as an ''adult pleasure,'' say some tobacco opponents.

Indeed, a Burbank ninth-grader predicted that the strictly enforced ordinance will backfire. ''We're going to smoke anyway, probably much more than before - we'll just do it off the streets,'' she said after police confiscated her cigarettes and informed administrators at Reavis High School here.

Burbank Mayor Harry Klein disagrees: ''We don't end up encouraging smoking. All we're saying is smoking is harmful, and maybe a light bulb will go off in the kid's head and they'll agree with that.''

Some antismoking activists say that, rather than ''criminalize''' youth for possessing tobacco, the antismoking campaign should use aggressive education to snuff out a teenager's desire for tobacco. ''We have to spend more time and energy discouraging youth from ever wanting to buy cigarettes by letting them know that by rebelling they are doing exactly what the industry wants them to do,'' says Patricia Brazil, associate director of Americans for Nonsmokers' Rights in Berkeley, Calif.

When Burbank police catch a youth smoking near school grounds, they confiscate the cigarettes and notify the dean, who then informs the parents. ''So far we have not had a second offender; it's been a very positive program,'' says Jeff Arsenault, an administrator at Reavis. If found smoking a second time, a student may either attend a class on the dangers of smoking or appear in court. On a third offense, police may ticket the offender, and a judge may require the youth to perform community service or pay a fine of up to $500.

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