In S. Carolina, a first, small step to curb teen smoking

Last week, the state finally outlawed underage smoking. Critics say that's not enough.

With the lowest cigarette tax in the nation and a dead-last ranking in smoking prevention, South Carolina remains one of the last true smokers' outposts.

But from the Pee Dee River to Parris Island, the Palmetto State's "smoke-and-let-smoke" ethic is changing – at least when it comes to teenage partakers. By becoming one of the last states to outlaw teenage possession of tobacco on Aug. 21, the legislature and Gov. Mark Sanford (R) took the state's first tentative steps toward state-sponsored smoking prevention.

The gambit itself won't likely change many minds. In fact, critics expect police won't find much time to impose a $25 fine, up to five days of community service, and possibly a lecture from the judge's bench on an underage smoker. Yet experts say the law does have meaning, not only for parents trying to bolster their own "don't smoke" sermons, but for an antismoking movement that, until now, has failed to gain purchase in a state that perhaps takes tobacco more seriously than any other.

"There's a wide variety in states about the level of legislative activism [on tobacco]," says Dick Vallandingham, director of prevention services for the Beaufort County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Department. "But even if you're at the tail end like South Carolina and you've got your feet dragging the back end of the wagon, you're still in the wagon."

Poor people smoke more than rich people, which is one reason why South Carolina, one of the nation's poorest states, has a higher-than-average smoking rate. Kentucky has the highest overall smoking rate – just under 30 percent in 2004, according to the state's health department.

When it comes to South Carolina teens, one in four of them have smoked in the last 30 days compared to a national average of just over one in five, according to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

But there's more to the story. As August winds down, the fertile 14-county Pee Dee River region is in the midst of hauling another season's worth of "leaf" – a pungent, social tradition dating back more than 300 years. So protective of tobacco is the legislature that it has bucked even the tobacco industry by refusing to put tax stamps on its cigarette packs. Such stamps allow authorities to track the movement of large purchases of cigarettes, especially from a cheap-tobacco state like South Carolina.

What's more, the state won't let communities enact their own no-smoking laws, despite efforts by lawmakers in the two largest cities – Columbia and Charleston – to do just that.

That in part explains why, instead of raising the cigarette tax above the current 7 cents and airing gritty public service announcements about the realities of smoking – two of the tactics credited with the drastic national dip in teen smoking over the last 10 years – South Carolina is dusting off an idea that has had little real impact on teen smoking when tried in other states, critics say.

"The [teen smoking law] is actually a sign that South Carolina has an old school tobacco control policy that other states were doing 10, 15 years ago," says Amy Barkley, a state advocacy director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "What it does is give [tobacco supporters] an excuse not to do things that are more effective."

The teen-smoking crackdown in South Carolina comes at a peculiar time for the smoking debate in America. Teen smoking rates dropped rapidly after states began focusing on the issue around 1996. But those rates have now flattened out as states like Florida and Massachusetts drastically cut their prevention efforts. A victory by the health lobby in South Carolina means a strike at the very heart of what remains of America's tobacco culture.

"In a state as impoverished as South Carolina, with escalating costs of health- care, the tobacco issue is as volatile an issue now as it was 15 years ago," says Fred Carter, a political science professor and president of Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C. "While the health lobby is inclined to take some steps, it doesn't have enough clout to take on the tobacco industry and do something that would have a lasting and irrevocable impact on anti-smoking efforts, which is raising the cigarette tax."

Twenty-something Amanda Taylor, who started smoking young, says South Carolina remains a smoker's mecca. Yet outlawing possession for high school students may be an effective deterrent – and certainly won't hurt, Ms. Taylor says. "It's probably a good message to send," she says.

In Marion County, in the heart of the Pee Dee region, Jerry Battle, a Democratic state legislator who runs a tobacco warehouse, acknowledges South Carolina's peculiar leanings, as well as its social and cultural protection of the leaf.

Yet even Mr. Battle sees the smoke clearing somewhat over the Palmetto State. To be sure, the fight over whether to promote or denounce tobacco – either overtly or covertly – will go on because it's a point of pride and principle on Tobacco Road, he says.

But "the industry is concerned and I really honestly think that you're going to see stronger efforts coming out of South Carolina to temper teenage smoking," says Battle.

"At the same time, I think adults should have the freedom to smoke and not become second-class citizens just because this is something we do, he says."

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