High School Smokes Out Tobacco Users
John Robert Walker is not saying who, but he knows some fellow athletes at Hoover High School who have quickly shed their cigarette-smoking or tobacco-chewing habits in recent weeks.
The reason is compelling: The school system here in this prosperous suburb south of Birmingham has just instituted not only random, mandatory testing for drugs and alcohol among its competing athletes â€“ but also testing for nicotine.
It is the latest and one of the most far-reaching forays in the ongoing national battle to discourage youth from taking up smoking or the use of other tobacco products. Health officials and others in the anti-tobacco arena say they know of no other place in the country where such a stringent program has been undertaken, but they predict other schools may soon follow Hoover's lead.
And they believe that given the choice to puff or play, most athletes are likely to put down their lighters.
"I know some people who have quit because of it," said Walker, a 17-year-old Hoover senior who is an offensive lineman for the Buccaneers. "People have decided. And it's a real deterrent, too â€“ if you're presented with a situation, 'Do you want to smoke?' 'No, man, I've got a drug test and I don't know when it's going to be.' It gives people another way to say no."
At no time in the United States has quite so much emphasis been given to the issue of youth and smoking. With the 1998 national tobacco settlement, tobacco companies agreed not to market to young people, scratching, among other things, the popular "Joe Camel" campaign for Camel cigarettes. Although cigarettes and other tobacco products are legal, it is illegal in most states for teenagers under 18 to purchase them.
A study reported by the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that children as young as 3 years old were identifying Joe Camel as a cartoon character as memorable as Mickey Mouse, said Joann Schellenbach, a spokeswoman with the American Cancer Society.
"It is one thing to talk about grown adults making choices. With impressionable children, it's another question," Schellenbach said. "Data showed children smoking at younger and younger ages, and the health of children is something that resonates with the public."
In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported some good news on the subject: Smoking among U.S. high school students finally had dropped slightly after increasing for most of the 1990s.
"While we're seeing an overall decline, there's a big age difference. The biggest decline is in 9th-graders, whereas in 12th-graders, smokers are continuing to increase," said Terry Pechacek, associate director of the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health. "The students who are less addicted are showing the greatest change. We are starting to see some positive declines, but we've got a long way to go."
The CDC's objective, Pechacek said, is to cut high school smoking in half. Right now, he said, nearly 35 percent of high school students across the country are smoking one or more days within a 30-day period. By the year 2010, the CDC wants that percentage to have fallen to about 16 percent. Of 50 million smokers in the United States, about 4 million are underage.
"If current smoking rates persist in this country, over 5 million children now under the age of 18 will end up dying prematurely of a tobacco-related disease and that's a horrendous number," Pechacek said. "Each day, we continue to estimate that more than 3,000 underage youth will start smoking regularly, and that, of those, it's estimated that one of three will die prematurely. We're talking about a problem of a very large magnitude."
Pechacek applauded states such as Arizona, California, Florida, Massachusetts, Mississippi and Oregon that have launched school and community programs attacking underage smoking â€“ using everything from billboards to computerized images appealing to vanity, showing how quickly and badly a young person might age if he or she smoked. The Hoover plan, he said, is a step in the right direction, adding, "We would encourage them to look at this as one strategy to use in conjunction with other things."
Already, Hoover students had successfully lobbied the city council here in this city of 65,000 to make sure cigarette vending machines were away from the public eye and confined to bars and other places where underage youth are not allowed. They also had gotten a billboard removed from near the high school entrance that showed an attractive young person smoking.
At first, earlier this year, the school system was considering testing only for illegal drugs and alcohol among the 1,500 competing athletes in grades 7 through 12, said Hoover athletic director Ron Swann. But, he said, parents kept asking, "Are you going to test for tobacco, too?"
After more study, the local school board decided to expand the testing program, set to begin this academic year, to include nicotine. "The biggest problem in adding it is that when you think of drugs, you don't think of nicotine as mind-altering," Swann said. "We had a little convincing to do."
With a first offense of testing positive for nicotine, the athlete's parents will be informed, Swann said. For a second offense, the student will have to participate in a tobacco education program. Three times, and he or she will be forced to miss 25 percent of their athletic events.
Testing positive for the other 11 illegal drugs and alcohol will carry stiffer penalties, Swann said. The testing program, estimated to cost between $35,000 and $50,000 a year, will be paid for through corporate sponsors and local funds. As yet, no tests have been conducted, but they could begin any day.
Tobacco companies say they applaud programs to curtail underage smoking.
"We do anything we possibly can to prevent underage smoking â€“ we do not want children to smoke," said Ellen Matthews, a spokeswoman for Reynolds Tobacco Co., declining to comment specifically on the nicotine testing. "We support minimum-age smoking laws that are already on the books in all 50 states."
The American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes drug testing in general, has come out against nicotine testing, questioning where such chemical testing will end. But Swann said he has received nothing but "positive feedback" from local parents, teachers and students.
"The only question I've gotten from the athletes is, 'Why are you singling us out?'â€š" he said. "And the answer is, 'Because you are role models. Because you get a little more attention than other students. Because people pay to see you compete.'
"I had a dad walk up to me â€“ he still smokes; I could smell it on him â€“ and he said he wished we had started something like this 25 years ago when he was in school."
Two other Alabama school systems, in Lee and Autauga counties, have just begun voluntary nicotine testing for all students, not just athletes, giving out identification cards that offer merchandise discounts for students who are smoke-free, said Diane Beeson, director of the tobacco prevention and control branch for the Alabama Department of Public Health. But no one else can match Hoover with its mandatory nicotine testing program for athletes, she said.
For Walker, the football player, the thought of being tested for nicotine meant no sacrifice. He has never smoked or chewed tobacco, he said, and he has no desire to begin now.
"Never," he said. "I've had too many relatives with cancer. I think it's good that we can step forward with this program and say, 'Hey, look at us. We're doing something good.'â€š"