Teens say anti-smoking bill doesn't scare them They anticipate lax enforcement

April 07, 1993|By Julie E. Greene | Julie E. Greene,Capital News Service

SILVER SPRING -- Veronica Sergeyko stands outside John F. Kennedy High School on a day that feels like spring, finishing a friend's cigarette.

Her classmates are smoking nearby, painting a hill white with their used cigarette butts.

Veronica said she isn't worried about a bill wending its way through the legislature that would increase penalties for businesses selling tobacco to minors and hit minors with fines for smoking.

"It's my choice. If I want to smoke, I smoke," said the 16-year old junior from Silver Spring. "If they pass a law, I'll find a way to smoke.

"I can smoke in my best friend's house -- anywhere. But not in my own house."

Veronica was one of about a dozen teens recently approached outside high schools in Montgomery and Prince George's counties to unscientifically gauge attitudes on the proposal. All of the students said that even if an anti-smoking measure is passed before the General Assembly recesses April 12, they could find a way to smoke. Many said their friends and families would buy cigarettes for them.

"Sometimes friends will buy cigarettes and we'll share," said Jason Ford, a 17-year-old junior at Kennedy who said he has been smoking, on and off, for four years.

Other students said they could continue to purchase the cigarettes themselves, because identification checks at stores are lax. Maryland law prohibits anyone under 18 from purchasing cigarettes.

"I look a lot older than I am," said 15-year-old Olney resident Liz Young, who said she smokes less than half a pack a day.

Kennedy freshman Jimmy Goucher said he buys his cigarettes at 7-Eleven, Peoples Drug Store and local gas stations. He said he smokes a pack a day.

"They look at my ID and they go, 'Oh, he's 19,' " the 17-year-old student said. "That's their own stupidity for selling it to us."

Workers at an Exxon gas station, a 7-Eleven and a Peoples Drug Store in Glenmont denied selling cigarettes to minors.

But Veronica and another high school student said the anti-smoking proposal could be beneficial. They said they're trying to quit smoking, and this measure could provide the impetus.

"I'd quit," Veronica said, noting, however, that she tried quitting about three weeks before the interview and already had started smoking again.

Brian Fulton, 16, a junior at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, said he's been trying to quit because President Clinton wants to raise the cigarette tax.

If a state anti-smoking proposal passes, it will further encourage him to stop, he said. He's been smoking since the 7th grade, he said.

"It's so addictive," Brian said. "It's like legal crack."

Students said they were skeptical local police could enforce the proposed law.

"That would be as hard to catch as people doing drugs," Jimmy said of teen smokers.

House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, and an opponent of the proposal, agreed enforcement of a provision in the Senate version would be difficult.

It would fine minors $50 the first time they're convicted of possessing any tobacco product. The fine rises to $100 for a second offense.

"I don't think there's enough po

lice on the streets to enforce . . . the bill," Mr. Mitchell said.

There is no fine for minors in the House proposal. Differences between the two bills must be worked out.

Sgt. Harry Geehreng, spokesman for the Montgomery County Police Department, said enforcing an anti-smoking law would be an "extra burden."

But, he said, police could use periodic sting operations similar to those used to prevent youths from buying alcohol.

Sergeant Geehreng said he believes a Senate provision to suspend or revoke the cigarette licenses of business violators would be a deterrent to merchants considering selling cigarettes to teens.

The House bill would fine businesses selling to minors, but it would not suspend or revoke licenses.

About 434,000 people die annually from cigarette smoking, said Karen Ann Bochau, an official with the American Lung Association of Maryland. She said smoking -- which can cause lung, bladder, throat and cervical cancer -- is on the rise among teens.

A 1989 survey showed about 20 percent of Maryland teen-agers smoke cigarettes at least once a week by the 12th grade, she said.

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