Democratic Underground

Punishing Kids in Order to Protect Them
May 29, 2001
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 smoking.

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 laws.

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 people.

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 to minors.

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.

The author is a youth health policy specialist and freelance writer. He is the recipient of the 1993 Dr. C. Everett Koop National Health Award.

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