High school rehab courses cut students' costly smoking habit
TACOMA -- A year ago, Melissa Taylor was spending more than half her monthly waitressing income on cigarettes.
But a Tacoma schools' program has helped the Stadium High School junior cut back from nearly 20 cigarettes a day to two or three.
"It was crazy. I used to spend $120 a month on cigarettes," said Taylor, 17. "Now that I've cut back, I have money to go shopping a lot more."
After Taylor got caught at school with cigarettes, the school offered her a choice of education instead of punishment.
Three South Sound districts credit that approach with improving attendance while helping students quit or curb smoking.
The Tacoma, Puyallup and Peninsula school districts offer to drop fines for illegal tobacco possession if students agree to take a course about the health dangers of smoking.
Repeat offenders perform community service to get out of the fines, which are nearly $100, including court costs for each offense. Grants from a 1998 state settlement with tobacco companies pay for the programs.
In a zero-tolerance climate, school districts commonly choose punishment when they catch students with tobacco at school. But rehabilitation, including courses that demonstrate the threats of cancer and respiratory illnesses from smoking, is gaining favor with busy police departments and schools pressed to keep kids in the classroom to raise performance.
Tacoma's 10-year effort was among the first in the state. Puyallup and the Peninsula school districts began forgiving tickets in September.
"We always have mixed feelings about kicking kids out of school," said Dennis Nugent, an assistant superintendent in the Gig Harbor district. "Our goal is to discourage and eliminate teenage smoking."
Decade-old buying ban For 10 years, it has been illegal for teens 17 and younger to buy tobacco products in the state. In 1999, the Legislature amended state law to specifically prohibit possession of tobacco products by minors 17 and younger. The amendment addressed the problem of minors bringing to school tobacco they had obtained from adults.
The state Health Department's manager of tobacco prevention and control programs encourages school districts to follow the examples of Tacoma, Puyallup and Peninsula.
"This approach is getting more interest because schools are looking for alternatives to suspensions," said Terry Reid, who manages the state's antismoking programs. "It has educational value. Students learn more about the dangers of tobacco use."
Puyallup Police Chief Roger Cool said the program is more practical than alienating students with tickets and fines.
"The more tickets you write, the less likely it is that students will develop a partnership with police," Cool said. "The officers really don't have the time for it, and none of the students can afford to pay the fines."
Amanda, a 14-year-old Stadium High student who withheld her last name so her father would not learn she smokes, said a video of a throat cancer patient who needs a voice box moved her to try to quit smoking.
Amanda said she has cut back from nearly 20 cigarettes a day to five or six. "Smoking helped me to calm down, but I got addicted," she said. "It was just so sad to watch that video."
Besides its health benefits, the Tacoma program helps some students gain confidence in other areas of their lives, said Sam Anderson, a project specialist for Tacoma schools' antismoking program.
"Because students have success in quitting smoking, they tend to apply themselves more in class," he said. "And they get in trouble with suspensions a whole lot less."