Teen smokers could lose license
COLUMBUS - Teenagers who smoke could lose their drivers' licenses under a bill being considered in the Ohio Senate.
Ohio is the only state that has not made it illegal for youths under age 18 to buy tobacco and is one of just 10 without a prohibition on minors possessing it.
It is, however, a crime for retailers and store clerks to sell tobacco products to minors.
"I was astounded when I found out that kids can stand in front of a police department and smoke and there's nothing we can do about it," said state Sen. Larry Mumper (R., Marion).
Hearings on the bill have begun in the Senate Judiciary Committee even as Senate Republicans continue to hold up separate legislation spelling out how the state would spend an estimated $10.1 billion settlement with major tobacco companies.
"We have [the tobacco settlement] so incredibly mired in partisan politics and the egos of six senators that the temerity of bringing this bill forward while [the settlement] languishes astounds me," said Dr. Rob Crane, a family physician at Ohio State University and anti-tobacco crusader.
In Ohio, 34.5 per cent of high school students smoke cigarettes, according to 1997 figures from the U.S. Youth Risk Behavior Survey by the federal Centers for Disease Control.
Under Mr. Mumper's bill, minors caught smoking, chewing, or even carrying tobacco could be judged unruly by the juvenile court system.
For a first offense, the child's parents would be notified and the child could be forced to attend a tobacco education course. A second offense could carry a $100 fine and a return to that education course.
A third offense could include all of the above plus a 30-day suspension of a teen's driver's license or learner's permit.
"That's one of the quickest ways to get the attention of young folks today," said Mr. Mumper. "It is my intent to penalize minors without criminalizing them."
During a recent hearing, state Sen. Michael Shoemaker (D., Bourneville) questioned how effectively such a law could be enforced.
"Before we talk about a smoking police SWAT team, we should look to see if we have a bigger problem out there with [underage drinking laws] that we're not enforcing," Mr. Shoemaker said.
Mr. Mumper said he believes the law could be applied whenever a youth is caught smoking in school or is stopped by police for some other offense.
He suggested money to run smoking cessation programs for these youths could be from the tobacco settlement stalled in his chamber. That bill earmarks $1.5 billion for smoking cessation and prevention programs.
Dr. Crane questioned other language in the bill that he believes could weaken the state's authority to go after retailers who sell tobacco to minors.
"The bill gives several exemptions from prosecution and focuses on the kids and on the clerks, who are often kids themselves," he said.
Mr. Mumper's bill includes a provision that would allow merchants to use the defense that they had no reason to believe the customer was a minor.
"The bill allows an affirmative defense in cases when a minor uses a false ID that can't be recognized as false," Mr. Mumper said.
"I don't want to get merchants off the hook, but with today's computers, it's easy to create a fake ID."
On Monday, the Oregon city council rejected a proposed ordinance that would have banned people under 18 from possessing tobacco products. Opponents complained that the measure would have criminalized what is essentially a health matter.