Teen-age smoking seems to defy efforts to curtail it Illinois town's success traced to a strict law

November 29, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WOODRIDGE, Ill. -- She is 15 and has been smoking since she was in fourth grade. She knows it is a mistake but sees no way out.

"Grown-ups should be trying to stop us, but I can't think of how they could," says the high school sophomore, who is willing to talk only if her name is not used.

Such statements reflect the difficulty of stopping teen-agers from smoking, even in this town, a suburb 25 miles southwest of downtown Chicago that tobacco experts say is the best documented case of a community that has sharply reduced youth smoking.

Woodridge's success, the experts say, comes from a 7-year-old program based on a town ordinance that forbids and strictly punishes the sale of tobacco products to teen-agers.

Researchers have widely praised Woodridge's efforts, and scores of communities from Massachusetts to California have used the town as a model in drafting their own tobacco regulations. The federal government has cited Woodridge's experience in drafting new regulations on tobacco sales, marketing and distribution.

"They've produced the best results anywhere," said Dr. Joseph R. DiFranza, a tobacco expert at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester.

Yet, despite Woodridge's lustrous image, researchers concede that skepticism is in order when considering any single town's reported compliance rates with bans on tobacco sales to youths. And the researchers point out that little effort has been made elsewhere to use the same benchmarks for success so that results could be fairly compared.

"I've been amazed at how little follow-up to the research there has been in other communities," said Professor Leonard Jason, a DePaul University psychologist.

The components in the Woodridge program include the local licensing of tobacco vendors, repeated undercover inspections to make sure they do not sell cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products to minors, and education programs in the schools.

Stores that sell to minors are fined up to $500 and pay the cost of public hearings on violations. The mayor also has the power to strip or suspend tobacco licenses.

In addition, Woodridge fines minors caught using or even possessing tobacco products unless they are under the direct supervision of parents or guardians and in their homes. But most important, researchers say, Woodridge vigorously enforces its ordinance.

The early returns were reported by Jason five years ago in the Journal of the American Medical Association: While 16 percent of a Woodridge's junior high school's students described themselves as regular smokers in 1989, only 5 percent of the school's students said they were everyday smokers in 1991.

Those results contrasted with research elsewhere showing a rise in the teen-age smoking rate.

The latest results: When Woodridge students moved on to neighboring Downers Grove for high school, 8.4 percent were regular smokers, compared with 13.4 percent of the Downers Grove residents at the two schools serving the towns.

Moreover, Downers Grove teen-agers were more likely to use chewing tobacco than were their Woodridge peers, 17.7 percent to 6.8 percent.

And, in another survey question, Woodridge students reported fewer efforts to sell them marijuana and other illegal drugs.

Before the ordinance was introduced, junior high school children in Woodridge were able to buy cigarettes 70 percent of the times they tried. By 1991, fewer than 5 percent of such efforts succeeded. Since the ordinance, the percentage of sales to teen-agers under 18 acting undercover has fluctuated.

In recent years, the goal of reducing the supply of cigarettes to teen-agers has become a centerpiece of national tobacco policy. Federal regulations that went into effect early this year threaten to strip states of grants for drug programs if they fail by 2000 to progressively reduce by 20 percent the percentage of successful efforts by underage youths to buy tobacco products.

Publicity about Woodridge has attracted requests for information from Camden, Maine, to Visalia, Calif., to Juneau, Alaska. King County, Wash., which includes Seattle, began a similar licensing program the same year. More than 20 towns in the Chicago region have introduced ordinances based on the one used by Woodridge.

But research presented at an American Public Health Association meeting this month by Dr. Nancy Rigotti, of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, raised doubts about whether those regulations would achieve their goals.

The research concluded that Massachusetts towns that recently reached the 20 percent target with Woodridge-like enforcement programs for retailers had, at least for now, nothing to show for it. Levels of smoking among high school students were similar to those in towns without tobacco controls where 16-year-old girls bought tobacco from stores on 54.2 percent of their efforts.

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