Kids in Order to Protect Them
by Rick Kropp
As we try to combat the growing problem of teen smoking
throughout this country, some elected officials, law enforcement
officials, and, unfortunately, a few public health officials
are using the simplistic and misguided approach of criminalizing
and penalizing minors for possessing and smoking cigarettes.
Over the last several years, we have witnessed a proliferation
of youth tobacco possession laws and their enforcement on
the state and local levels as well-meaning but ill-informed
public and law enforcement officials push this approach to
the complicated, multi-faceted public health problem of youth
The fact remains that criminalizing and punishing minors
for possessing and smoking cigarettes do not discourage minors
from purchasing or smoking cigarettes. There is no research
or practice evidence showing that youth possession laws have
any positive effect in reducing teen smoking, youth access
to cigarettes, cigarette sales to minors, and cigarette purchases
by minors. There is no sound public health basis for these
On the other hand, enforcement of youth possession laws may
contribute to and exacerbate the problem of teen smoking.
For example, youth smoking rates are generally higher in states
with long-standing youth possession laws in comparison with
states that do not have similar laws. In addition, youth possession
laws show teens that tobacco is a "forbidden fruit", thus
making it much more attractive to rebellious young people.
These laws romanticize the practice of smoking among young
To make matters even worse, these laws are applied discriminatingly
and are selectively enforced. Teens who smoke in public are
much easier targets for law enforcement than merchants who
sell tobacco to minors or tobacco companies who blatantly
market their highly addictive products to children. As youth
see the hypocrisy of punishing them for smoking rather than
punishing merchants or the tobacco industry, youth disrespect
for the law, law enforcement and community values will increase.
Their resentment and rebelliousness will grow.
These laws are also unjust, unfair and inequitable. Minors
should never be criminalized for behavior which is perceived
by them to be the norms for adults. Youth possession laws
are contrary to our notions of American individual liberties.
These laws treat teens as second-class citizens.
Youth possession laws undercut the many informal controls
that exist in our society for youth. These informal controls
come from parents, family, schools and friends. With youth
possession laws, parents, family, schools and friends come
to rely on the police to prevent kids from smoking.
Laws that blame and punish kids for smoking have a chilling
effect on young people and their parents. Young people may
be less likely to seek help for their nicotine addiction if
they are breaking the law by smoking. Parents will hesitate
to report illegal tobacco sales to their child if by doing
so they implicate their children and themselves. One of the
reasons these laws exist and are enforced is to get at other
youth behaviors that society wants to control. For example,
to some people youth appear more frightening and intimidating
when they are smoking. The reactions by some adults to these
appearances by youth promote youth possession laws and their
enforcement. These reactions by adults merely compensate for
the fear and inadequacy these adults feel when they have to
deal with these youth and their apparent aberrant behavior.
Responsibility lies with adults who make the product, market
it, and make money off of it. This inequity disenfranchises
kids. These laws blame and punish the victims of the unethical
and illegal activities of adults that cause children to smoke.
These adults are the cigarette companies that target children
in their advertising and promotional activities. These adults
are the retail merchants that continue to sell cigarettes
These laws deflect and diminish the responsibilities of merchants
and the cigarette companies, while putting the responsibilities
and burdens on children instead. Widespread cigarette sales
to minors and blatant cigarette advertising targeting kids
are major reasons why kids smoke. Easy access and targeted
marketing encourage kids to smoke. To penalize young people
for behaving in this way is a form of entrapment.
These laws are vigorously pursued and endorsed by the tobacco
and retail industries in order to protect themselves from
government regulation of the sale, distribution and marketing
of cigarettes. These industries try to shift the blame to
kids. Penalizing teen smokers protects the tobacco and retail
industries. Tobacco retailers know that money and manpower
spent to enforce youth possession laws means less money and
manpower for enforcement of tobacco sales laws against tobacco
sellers. The tobacco and retail industries use their political
clout to cripple tobacco sales enforcement and merchant compliance
programs, and redirect enforcement efforts towards teen smokers.
The reasons for this political strategy involve the protection
of these industries' financial interests at the expense of
public health and child safety. These laws are supported by
the tobacco and retail industries because they may shield
them from future civil liability if young purchasers are breaking
the law. Future lawsuits against cigarette companies and retailers
may be weakened if these industries can use a defense that
the underage purchasers were violating the law.
Every state in the country now has a law prohibiting tobacco
sales to minors. Some cities and counties have similar laws.
The purpose of these laws is to protect children. Why then
do some states and localities also have provisions of these
tobacco sales laws that punish and criminalize children for
smoking? If tobacco sales laws are supposed to protect children
from harm, why do these same laws punish them? It just doesn't
make any sense.
author is a youth health policy specialist and freelance writer.
He is the recipient of the 1993 Dr. C. Everett Koop National