S.C. teen smoking rates among highest
COLUMBIA | About 36 percent of teen-agers in South Carolina smoke, but the state provides little funding for programs to stop or prevent the trend.
South Carolina's teen smoking rate ranks among the worst in the country, said Jim Webber, chief executive of the American Lung Association of South Carolina. Nationwide, about 28 percent of teens smoke, he said.
The state has no law against teen smoking. And although South Carolina won a $2.1 billion settlement from tobacco companies, it spends only about $1 million a year on preventing teens from smoking.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that South Carolina spend $22 million to prevent youths from smoking, Webber said.
"To have an immediate effect, we need a comprehensive program involving cessation programs, anti-smoking advertising and the involvement of hospitals and doctors," Webber said.
"The only way to get something like this done is through state government."
Other states have been more successful.
Florida spends about $40 million each year on youth programs, and that state's teen smoking rate is about 22 percent.
Enforcement in Florida is stricter. Merchants who sell to minors face a $500 fine, while minors caught smoking can be sentenced to community service.
Clerks selling cigarettes to minors in South Carolina face only a $25 fine, which has proved useless, said Rep. Scott Talley, R-Spartanburg.
"The way it is now, court costs far exceed the fines, so many times it's not even enforced," Talley said.
It's not clear whether things will improve. Facing a tight budget year, the Department of Health and Environmental Control froze $600,000 intended for a program to fight teen tobacco use. And the House cut from the state budget $1.7 million from a program aimed at curbing teen smoking.
The Senate Finance Committee's version of the budget restored DHEC's $1.6 million for youth smoking cessation programs, however. The full Senate is expected to debate the budget sometime next week.
Talley hopes the way to curb teen smoking is in enforcement. He has proposed a bill that would increase fines for clerks who sell to minors and penalize teens who smoke with community service or fines ranging from $100 for a first offense to $300 for the third offense.
Talley's bill also makes it difficult for teens to buy tobacco from vending machines and requires businesses to train their clerks to verify customers' ages before selling tobacco products.
"We spend $8.5 million to $9 million in health care costs for people who start smoking at an early age," Talley said. "A 16-year-old doesn't think about getting cancer at 60."