Pa. town considers snuffing out teen smoking


Published: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 4, 2003 at 10:08 p.m.

ROBESONIA, Pa. - At 17 years old, Ben Harris estimates he smokes a pack of cigarettes every two or three days.

Facts

On the Net:

Robesonia Borough: http://www.berkscd.org/pages/muniframes/robe.html

Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids: http://www.tobaccofreekids.org

Harris, who began smoking when he was 9, doubts he'll quit anytime soon - not even if officials in this borough of 2,000 near Reading enact a proposal to prohibit anyone under 18 from smoking outdoors.

"I've tried quitting and it's a lot harder than people think," Harris said. "A lot of people I know aren't happy about this."

Borough Council President Randy Gartner said police officers aren't happy they have no authority to cite teens smoking around town, especially in the summer.

"The police chief and I were discussing the fact that kids could not legally buy cigarettes in Pennsylvania, but we could see a lot of kids getting off the school bus and lighting up and coming to the playground and lighting up," Gartner said.

The council was originally expected to vote Monday on the proposed ordinance, which requires violators to pay a $50 fine. But the council now has decided to hold off on a decision while its attorney researches whether the proposal conflicts with a state law that pre-empts local anti-tobacco ordinances, Gartner said.

Under Pennsylvania law, teens face penalties only for buying tobacco products - including up to 75 hours' community services, a $250 fine, and suspension of their driver's licenses for up to 30 days, state Health Department spokesman Richard McGarvey said.

If the ordinance is approved, Robesonia would likely become the first municipality in the state to impose such a ban, according to the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors.

According to the American Lung Association, 33 states prohibit minors from possessing tobacco products.

Municipalities in other states enacted their own local bans.

Flemington became the first New Jersey community to prosecute teens for smoking in 1995. Penalties range from a verbal warning for the first violation to a fine of up to $300 for five infractions. The department has cited hundreds of teens since the law took effect, but no one has incurred more than three violations, said Cpl. Chris Foley, Flemington's juvenile officer.

"I'm not getting as many calls as I used to get when it first took effect, meaning that the program works," Foley said.

Ironically, national and statewide anti-smoking groups have opposed laws that seek to prosecute minors for smoking. They have argued that such efforts divert attention from retailers who sell cigarettes to minors, which they view as the real source of the problem.

"Our concern has been that the tobacco industry has been willing to accept efforts to go after kids as an alternative to going after the retailers," said Eric Lindblom, manager for policy research and assistant general counsel for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids in Washington, D.C.

Larry Frankel, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said his organization shares those concerns.

"In general, our position is that government can regulate smoking in public places. Whether it's proper to do so in this manner is another issue," he said. "It seems like you're giving them another tool for the police to use against minors without going to the source of the problem."

A spokeswoman for tobacco giant Philip Morris USA, however, said the company supports efforts to prevent minors from smoking that involve enforcement on both fronts.

"We recognize there is some concern about whom to put the burden on, but there needs to be a comprehensive effort. If we thought the current legislation was enough, then kids would not still be smoking," said the spokeswoman, Jamie Drogan.

Christine Wagner said the prospect of a teen smoking ban doesn't bother her. Wagner moved to the area three months ago from Tucson, Ariz., which bans smoking in restaurants.

"The kids don't need it," said Wagner as she walked home with her 12-year-old daughter.

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