Bills on smoking, drinking target teens
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By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Government Writer
By Treena Shapiro
Measures before the Legislature meant to curb smoking, drinking and drug use by minors take aim at two things kids value most: their right to drive and their free time.
Although minors can't legally purchase tobacco products, alcohol or drugs, the laws already in place have not been enough to stop determined kids from getting their hands on them anyway.
Education and other preventive measures have helped decrease the use of these substances among Hawai'i's youth, who compare favorably with national averages. However, the problem here is persistent enough to make some lawmakers wonder whether stiffer penalties such as driver's license suspensions or community service would curb use even further.
Although parents who were asked about the proposals generally agreed that they wanted to see the state ramp up its efforts to reduce risky behaviors, they questioned whether the punishments fit the crimes, considering that getting caught experimenting with cigarettes could lead to an arrest record and a driver's license suspension.
"I think that's going too far," said Nadine Brovelli-Aoki, a mother of two. "That's ridiculous."
That's not to say she wouldn't welcome efforts by the state to further discourage kids from taking up unhealthy habits. "I think it's a very good idea to lessen the number of kids drinking and smoking," she said.
But she said some of the responsibility should be left to parents. Rather than see her children cited for smoking, "I would try to talk to them and convince them that cigarettes are not the right road to take," she said.
While proposals to raise the cigarette tax, ban the sale of flavored tobacco and make work and public places smoke-free are a high priority among some lawmakers, bills that seek to turn things such as smoking into a misdemeanor will be a tough sell.
"I'm not passing out any measures that seek to criminalize minors," said Sen. Roz Baker, chairwoman of the Health Committee. "All of the testimony from everybody except (the police) said it's really not effective, it's not appropriate," added Baker, D-5th (W. Maui, S. Maui).
Likewise, the House Health Committee is expected to eliminate a provision in a bill that would make smoking by a minor a misdemeanor.
In a random sampling of youth, none asked about the proposals supported stiffer penalties for young smokers.
"It's not their fault for being addicted to the product. What we really want to do is help them stop, not punish them," said Krystal Pelayo, a member of REAL-Hawai'i Youth Movement Against the Tobacco Industry. The Baldwin High School student said making smoking illegal could actually tempt rebellious teens to light up.
"Put a law there and we try to push the limits on that," the 16-year-old said.
What she would rather see is a ban on smoking in public places, which she thinks would help friends who want to quit but are tempted when they see others smoking. She also thinks another increase in the cigarette tax would be a good idea, because it makes smoking more inconvenient for cash-strapped teens.
She also has a keen interest in the bill that would ban flavored cigarettes, which her friends have tried after seeing advertisements.
"It's really obvious the tobacco industry is trying to target the youth. We love new stuff, we like to experiment with things," she said. "They know we like sweet things."
Other teens said they were more concerned about the cigarette tax proposal than the stiffer penalties or the ban on smoking in public places.
According to national statistics used by the state attorney general's office, about 29 percent of youths between 12 and 20 use alcohol, 23.3 percent use tobacco and 14.9 percent use illegal drugs.
But state Department of Health surveys from 2003 indicate use among Hawai'i youths is on the decline: 14.9 percent of high schoolers smoked in 2003, compared with 24.5 in 2000; 12 percent of survey respondents had had a drink within the past month, down almost 3 percentage points from the 2001 survey; and 6.1 percent of respondents said they had smoked marijuana in the past month, down nearly 2 percentage points from 2001.
While some advocates for the bills argue that stiffer penalties would serve as a strong deterrent, others would prefer the Legislature to pass proven prevention techniques, rather than harsher punishments that may need to be disclosed on job, college and scholarship applications.
Carol McNamee, Mothers Against Drunk Driving-Hawai'i's vice president for public policy, said a driver's license is among a teen's most valued possessions, so suspending a driver's license would hurt in a way that fines may not, especially if parents help foot the bill.
Mandatory community service also is seen as an effective penalty, since "the loss of free time would seem like a serious deterrent to them," McNamee said.
MADD supports a measure that would suspend the driver's license of anyone underage caught with alcohol, regardless of whether or not the person is driving.
Michael and Sean Julian, Saint Louis School students who lost their sister to a drunken driver, urged lawmakers to pass the bill.
"Underage drinking devastates lives," they said in written testimony, which they submitted jointly. "By passing this bill, teens will more likely value their opportunity to drive rather than lose opportunities due to drinking."
Arianna Tyler, who like the Julians, belongs to MADD-Hawai'i Youth in Action, noted that it is not difficult for minors to obtain alcohol. "By passing this bill, it will be less appealing and more difficult for minors to purchase alcohol and I believe it will reduce the unnecessary deaths that result from underage drinking and impaired driving among youth," she wrote in her testimony.
MADD-Hawai'i also backs a bill that would add consumption of alcohol to the petty misdemeanor offense of purchasing or possessing alcohol.
The current law requires police to catch minors with the alcohol in hand, making enforcement difficult.
By making consumption an offense, police officers would not have to see an alcohol container and would be able to arrest someone who has already ingested the beverage, McNamee said.
McNamee pointed out that alcohol and drug use are already petty misdemeanors, but MADD would like to see driver's license suspension, community service and substance abuse treatment written into the law, rather than leaving the punishment to the discretion of family court judges.
That is not the case for smoking a cigarette, which currently is not a punishable offense. Minors are currently prohibited only from purchasing tobacco products, not possessing or using them.
The Coalition for a Tobacco Free Hawai'i does not want to see smoking turned into a criminal act. The coalition's director, Deborah Zysman, said there is no research to suggest there is a positive impact in making smoking by minors illegal.
"This is going to drive the behavior more underground," she said. "Giving the kid a citation is probably not going to stop the kid from smoking ... but it is making it harder for that kid to get into college or get a job."
What the coalition does support is a proposal to create smoke-free work and public places, so kids have less exposure to secondhand smoke or the sight of adult role models with a cigarette in hand.
They also would like to see an increase in the cigarette tax, which would put the price of cigarettes out of reach for more kids. "Kids are the most price sensitive population for cigarettes," she said.
A bill that would raise the cigarette tax by 6 cents per cigarette over three years would put some of the revenue back into prevention programs and attack youth smoking from two angles, Zysman said.
Reach Treena Shapiro at email@example.com.