Utah Opens a New Front in the War Against Teen Smoking

First tobacco court in the US hopes to cut rising rates by paying more attention to young offenders.

He was a kid who lived in a group home - very structured, very strict. So one night he slipped out. When he climbed back in the window at 3 a.m., they were waiting for him. He told the judge that he just wanted to get out for a smoke with his buddies.

"With some kids, smoking is like a right of passage," says Chris Decker, the guardian who worked with the boy in juvenile court. "It's something they can control, and gives them a feeling of freedom."

Normally, in a court system flushed with cases of drug dealing and violent crime, such offenders would get a $25 fine or a short stint in a stop-smoking program. But under a pioneering new court to open this fall in Utah, teen smokers will get more attention - and harsher penalties.

Utah's Tobacco Court is the first of its kind in the nation. Coming at a time when President Clinton has put teen smoking high on the nation's agenda, it is an experiment in how best to reform young violators. And it could hold valuable lessons for other states seeking to cut rising youth-smoking rates.

The creation of Joseph Anderson, a judge in Utah's Third District, the court has been on the drawing board for the past 2-1/2 years. Judge Anderson found that he was one of a few juvenile judges trying to deal with smoking infractions, which most saw as insignificant compared with other juvenile problems.

"They said there are just too many of them.... 'We don't have the resources,' " says Anderson, whose Third District handles half of the state's 10,000 smoking violations each year. "Both in terms of health problems and legal problems, we needed to do something."

Indeed, proponents of the new court point out that, according to the US surgeon general, cocaine use is 30 times more likely among smokers than nonsmokers. Others say smoking is also a strong indicator of deep-seated problems.

"You tend to see kids smoking who don't have much else in their lives," says Mr. Decker.

For the Utah courts, other addictions and problems have been higher priority. Only reluctantly did the Utah Supreme Court let Anderson experiment with his program for a year. The state court gave him $10,000 to start, and he eked out $20,000 more from other contributors including the state attorney general and the state health department. That's enough to get the program up and running.

Tobacco Court will work out of small claims court with volunteer, pro-tem judges. They will have the authority to levy fines as much as $250, require community service, and send youths to smoking-education programs. If the teens thumb their noses at the law, they can have their driving privileges suspended.

"Our emphasis is to push them toward education," says Anderson. Tobacco Court will use a program called STTOP - Stop Teen Tobacco - one of a few substance-abuse programs that concentrates exclusively on smoking. The program reinforces good behavior through activities and is heavily reliant on parental participation, says coordinator Raymond Christy.

That was a problem for Anderson when he sentenced the boy from the group home. The courts had already terminated the boy's family's parental rights. Instead, Anderson sent the boy to the program with a worker from the home.

"Smoking isn't a simple problem," says Decker. "When you look at the different reasons kids smoke - their home life, emotional needs, and other situations ... it's hard to know which incentives and consequences you use."

Now, Tobacco Court has a year to prove that it can mete out the right incentives and consequences.

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