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Smoking and schools

January 27, 1997

Beginning Feb. 3, it will cost Pennsylvania teenagers more than the price of a pack of cigarettes if they get caught with tobacco products in school. We applaud the effort to combat this bad habit, but lament the fact that the schools are again being asked to do a parent's job.

The bill, approved by the state legislature in November and signed by Gov. Tom Ridge last month, requires schools which catch students with tobacco products to refer them to a local district justice, who could fine them up to $50.

According to The Associated Press, anti-smoking groups see the bill as unfair to students because they feel the burden should be upon those who market and sell tobacco to minors. Such groups would rather see sanctions placed on tobacco companies.

The problem with this approach is that, for now, tobacco remains a legal product. We doubt that, absent some proof that there is an organized strategy to market it to youth, that it's possible to sanction a company for the illegal misuse of its products. Otherwise the manufacturers of spray paint would be liable every time graffiti appeared on a building wall.

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The burden ought to be on parents, who are responsible for a minor child's conduct. Just as parents are responsible when a child is truant with no reasonable excuse, they should also be the ones responsible for maintaining tobacco-free teens.

However, the odds of changing a law that punishes non-voting teens into something that sanctions voting-age adults probably aren't good. The most that can be done for now is to modify the existing law.

How so? Because tobacco patrol will entail new paperwork for the schools, we'd like to see the justices rebate at least half of each $50 fine to them. That should not only compensate schools, but give administrators some incentive to be vigilant. Ultimately, however, it's a parent's job to educate their children, so smoke doesn't turn into red tape for Pennsylvania's schools.

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