Youth tobacco ban tough to enforce
Citing teens for using tobacco products is an effective measure in curbing the youth smoking rate, which is 47 percent in Kentucky. But enforcing a law that prohibits teens from lighting up is difficult, if not nearly impossible to enforce.
Changing community norms and attitudes toward smoking is necessary before police can effectively keep youths from smoking, said Capt. John Kazlauskas, patrol commander with the Owensboro Police Department.
"I'm not going to say that it's unenforceable, but officers have to use discretion," Kazlauskas said.
Some youths look older, and some young adults look like teen-agers, he said.
Since Kentucky passed the law in 2000 that prohibits youth under age 18 from having or using tobacco products, Owensboro police have issued seven citations, all since January of this year, Kazlauskas said.
State law prohibits youths under age 18 from buying, possessing or using tobacco products. Anyone caught violating the law in plain view can be issued a citation and fined $50, said Capt. Gary Hagan with the police department. Officers can confiscate tobacco as well, he said.
But youths are crafty, Kazlauskas said.
"They know the statute as well as we do," he said. "They're not going to make themselves observed."
Immaneul Tisdale, 17, is a prime example. An officer nabbed him smoking a Camel outside Towne Square Mall about two months ago. But the officer didn't get his cigarettes; they were hidden in a pants pocket near his ankle.
"People are not just going to stop just because they change the laws," Tisdale said, browsing in an office supply store near the mall. "I just go in my garage."
A junior attending Apollo High School, Tisdale has been smoking since he was 11 and now is up to about a pack a day.
"I've tried to quit before, but it's hard," he said.
The police department stepped up its efforts to curb youth smoking after Hagan attended a Champions For a Drug-Free Owensboro-Daviess County recently and heard youths talk about how much of a problem smoking was in the community. Hagan then took the information back to Kazlauskas and discussed increasing their efforts.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends citing youths to curb tobacco use among students, said Chad Gesser, prevention enhancement site coordinator for RiverValley Regional Prevention Center.
Gesser said the center is considering working with police officers to relieve some of the responsibility in enforcing the law.
"Until the community starts gathering more support regarding the youth smoking rate, it's going to make it difficult for police to enforce," Gesser said.
Tisdale said he may not have started smoking if it weren't so accepted.
His friend, Jeremy Higgs, agreed.
"I started seeing everybody smoking and thought it would be cool and tried it," said the 15-year-old Higgs, who no longer smokes.