Senator's fight against tobacco use by teens tough

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For years, my law office was on Third Street, near Bordewich-Bray Elementary School, and each afternoon, I would enjoy watching the children walking home from school. That is until I would see a group of fifth-graders smoking cigarettes. The sight of them destroying their young lives would send me into a rage, but knowing that there was no law against it, there was nothing to be done. It seemed that I was the only one concerned about this situation, until recently when I read about Sen. Mike McGinness' proposal to the next session of the Nevada Legislature.

Sen. McGinness, R-Fallon, has a radical idea - he wants teen smoking to be illegal in Nevada. Imagine that! What a concept! Only in Nevada and four other states can teens walk down the street and smoke without concern of possible consequences. The majority of states prohibit the possession of tobacco products by teens, but in Nevada, not only is teen smoking legal, the schools establish a "smoker's corner" so that teens can congregate while they are smoking, thereby making it a social occasion. Then we wonder why we consistently have one of the highest percentages of smokers of any state in the United States. In 2001, 27 percent of the adult population smoked, the sixth highest in the nation.

Why would we want to decrease teen smoking in Nevada?

Well, No. 1, smoking is harmful to one's health. Duhhh.

Secondly, smokers get sick from smoking, and it costs the government, federal, state and local governments enormous amounts of money to take care of them. In 2002, $96 million was spent in Medicaid payments for low-income people with tobacco-related illnesses.

Thirdly, there is a body of research that indicates that teen smokers are much more likely to use illicit drugs than nonsmokers. The National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 12- to 17-year-olds who smoke cigarettes are 100 times more likely to smoke marijuana, 14 times more likely to abuse alcohol, and 32 times more likely to use cocaine/meth and other hard drugs than their nonsmoking peers. Columbia University's Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse states that the earlier that children use tobacco; the more likely they are to move on to other drugs.

Does this mean that everyone that smokes tobacco will go on to become a meth addict? No, absolutely not, but my observation is that most drug addicts smoke. Ninety percent of convicts in the Nevada Prison system smoke. Think about it! While some would argue that there is no causal effect between the use of tobacco and other drugs, and there are studies to substantiate their position, it is incontrovertible that smoking cigarettes is an indicator of what is to come. It is a red flag!

According to the American Lung Association, the average teen smoker had his/her first cigarette by 13 and became a daily smoker by age 141Ú2. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration study states that in the United States annually, 757,000 teens will become regular smokers. Teens understand only one thing: swift and immediate consequences. Science had proven the synapses that develop good judgment will not mature until a person is approximately 20 years old at the earliest, and as parents of teenagers or former teenagers, we can attest to this fact without the benefit of scientific research.

In most states, teens caught smoking or in possession of tobacco products will be subject to a non-criminal citation, with penalties including fines, community service and escalating to the suspension of a driver's license after repeated offenses. A mandatory class on the risks of smoking is required for everyone cited.

What about the cost of enforcement? One officer, one hour after school, several days a week is minimal, compared with the cost of rehabilitating one meth addict or the care of one lung cancer patient. The immediate benefit would be the notification to the parents and the school, providing an opportunity for early intervention and the possible prevention of addiction.

Sen. Mike McGinness, God bless him, is going to have a hard way to go at the Legislature, where the tobacco/casino lobby is omnipotent. Nevada suffers under a "super pre-emption" of local control which prohibits local government from implementing any type of tobacco-control ordinance. Repeated attempts to change this law by various legislators and citizens groups have met with tobacco-industry opposition and inevitable defeat. Nevada is in the stranglehold of the tobacco industry, and it is not going to let go without a fight. I support Sen. McGinness in his fight, and I hope that you will do so as well. It will be worth it!

-- Linda Johnson is a 30-year resident of Carson City, a wife, mother and retired attorney. She serves on the Public Policy Committee of the Carson City Anti-meth Partnership.


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