Teenagers Smoking? Call Police
RIDGEWOOD , N.J. -- EVERYONE agrees that teenage smoking is a scourge. It's ugly. It stinks. It's unhealthy.
We've tried all the usual remedies. We've told them to just say no. We've put up signs. We've made videotapes. Run advertisements. Held classes. But the smoking continues.
Places like Ridgewood in Bergen County have gone to the next level. They've called in the cops. They made it illegal for people under 18 years of age to possess tobacco. That seemed simple enough. And, as it has been since, the air was clear outside Ridgewood High School as classes let out on Monday afternoon.
But half a block away, on a residential street, students were lighting up.
Between drags on a Camel, a 17-year-old student, somewhat superfluously, said: "I don't think it's solving a problem. It's just getting kids in trouble." As he spoke, another student asked for a cigarette.
The 17-year-old said he had been cited a few times by the police, who called his mother.
Two or three teenagers a day have been caught smoking since the law went into effect three years ago in this well-to-do town. For most, their punishment is having their parents called or, after the third offense, attending smoking cessation classes. If they're caught enough times, they can be ordered to pay to take classes at a hospital, although that rarely happens, said Louis Mader, the police chief.
Teenage smoking bans here and in other towns have had mixed results, at best, but that's not stopping the State Legislature from considering a statewide prohibition -- and one with higher stakes.
Assemblyman Joseph Suliga, a Democrat from Union County, wants to tie smoking to another rite of passage, driving. He wants to amend his bill, which passed the Assembly and is due before a Senate committee tomorrow. Under his proposal teenagers caught smoking three times would face a three-month delay in receiving their driver's licenses, or a suspension if they already have licenses.
He said simple education was not working and similar sanctions had worked in Florida.
Police officers are not looking forward to walking the butt beat.
"My initial reaction is that law enforcement officers with guns and badges shouldn't be enforcing bans on tobacco," said Robert Herndon, the chief of police in Allendale and the president of the New Jersey State Association of Chiefs of Police. "It seems like a health issue or a parental issue. We'd be pushing kids into the shadows, so to speak."
A coalition of anti-smoking groups and health organizations, which might be expected to favor measures to curtail smoking, opposes the New Jersey legislation as ineffective.
But any law aimed at protecting children, especially one that involves law enforcement, is hard for politicians to resist. About 20 states have laws banning tobacco possession by teenagers, complementing laws that make sales to teenagers illegal.
Listening to the arguments, the debate sounds less about smoking than about varying views of children.
Regina Carlson, the president of GASP, one of the anti-smoking groups, said children are victimized by tobacco advertising and that the bill amounted to "blaming the victims" rather than defending them.
Guy Gregg, a Republican Assemblyman from Morris County and a sponsor of the bill, said, "life doesn't work without consequences" and teenagers need to learn that.
"I don't think we should start at age 12, 13 or 14, always thinking it's someone else's fault," he said.
Nor is Mr. Gregg likely to have much sympathy for a 17-year-old boy who was stopped while walking the street in Ridgewood last year by a police officer who saw him smoking. The officer searched the boy and found marijuana. Now the boy's lawyer, Matthew T. Priore, is challenging the constitutionality of Ridgewood's law and the search.
But on the streets of Ridgewood, the question of what to do remains.
A 17-year-old girl, an occasional smoker, said, "If people want to smoke it's their choice." But she added, "If you see little kids, 13 or 14, walking down the street smoking, that's pretty ridiculous."
The teenagers sound as defeated as the adults. The 17-year old boy smoking near the school said passing a law will only make teenagers smoke more. As for himself, he said, looking longingly through a haze of smoke, "If I had it to do over again, I would have never started."