Underage smokers respond to threat of legal penalties

November 15, 2001

Middle school and high school students are more likely to pass up cigarettes when faced with the prospect of being fined or losing their drivers license, according to a study of a Florida program that has helped reduce underage smoking by 40 percent.

Smoking rates for the most recent 30 days were lower in areas where underage smoking laws were more strictly enforced, ranging from 21 percent to 26.6 percent compared with low-enforcement areas, where rates ranged from 28.1 percent to 29.2 percent. Students in the high-enforcement areas were also much more aware of enforcement activity and the penalties for being caught smoking.

"It would be unreasonable to conclude that the differences in tobacco use were due to enforcement without differences in awareness of enforcement activity," says lead author William C. Livingood, Ph.D., director of health, policy and evaluation research with the Duval County Health Department in Florida.

The findings are published in the December issue of Health Education & Behavior.

Florida's comprehensive campaign is made up of multiple components, including an advertising initiative, youth leadership and community partnerships, education, enforcement and evaluation and research. Since enforcement of underage smoking laws requires a complex coordination of police officers, judges, court clerks and states attorneys, counties varied widely in the number of children and adolescent smokers who received citations, ranging from one to more than 200.

For the purpose of this study, several counties were classified as either high-enforcement or low-enforcement counties. High-enforcement counties dispensed at least twice as many citations to underage smokers as low-enforcement counties. This study included surveys with 2,088 students, 1,140 from the high-enforcement counties and 948 from the low-enforcement counties.

Students in the high-enforcement counties were more likely to say that penalties reduce their willingness to smoke close to schools than were students in the low-enforcement areas. Middle school students were more likely to say that penalties would affect their use than were high-school students.

Nearly 49 percent of students who smoked no more than one cigarette a day said that penalties influence their likelihood of smoking, compared with 23 percent of students who smoked two or more cigarettes a day and 18 percent of those who had smoked on the day of the survey.

"The potential for law enforcement to discourage tobacco use in younger, less frequent tobacco users and to reduce the role modeling in locations frequented by younger children may have profound implications for reducing the epidemic of youth tobacco use," says Livingood.

The study findings were consistent across racial and ethnic groups, although smoking rates among African-American students were more dramatically influenced by the enforcement rating of their county than white students.
The study was funded by a grant from the Florida Department of Health, Office of Tobacco Control.

Health Education & Behavior, a bimonthly peer-reviewed journal of the Society for Public Health Education (SOPHE), publishes research on critical health issues for professionals in the implementation and administration of public health information programs. SOPHE is an international, non-profit professional organization that promotes the health of all people through education. For information about the journal, contact Elaine Auld at 202-408-9804.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health http://www.cfah.org. For more research news and information, go to our special section devoted to health and behavior in the "Peer-Reviewed Journals" area of Eurekalert!, http://www.eurekalert.org/jrnls/cfah/. For information about the Center, call Ira Allen, iallen@cfah.org, 202-387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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