This past year on the Florida Tobacco Prevention Online Course, we asked our participants to present their perspective on local, state and federal laws and the effectiveness of enforcement in the law forum. Participants were asked to share information on their district and school policies concerning tobacco use, the overlooked violations and the ramifications that students experience when caught for possession and use of both smoking and smokeless products. The responses they provided were eye opening and show what is happening in some of our Florida counties.
After going through our course, many participants are divided on tobacco laws. While some believe laws have lead to a reduction of underage use, many others believe the tobacco laws, as they are now, are ineffective, as is the enforcement of said laws. A participant from Palm Beach said she has witnessed teens purchasing tobacco products without showing proof of their age and feels tobacco violations aren’t a priority to law enforcement. Other participants reported they have seen students smoking in front of stores or walking down the street smoking and nothing is done about it. Some participants felt that while flavored cigarettes are no longer allowed, all flavored tobacco needs to be addressed as it is extremely popular with teens, and this issue needs to be addressed quickly. One participant from Miami-Dade, however, stated his county has a flavored tobacco ban covering cigars and chewing tobacco as it is a “starter” product for teens. Many participants felt Florida should raise the tobacco tax on cigarettes from the current $1.33/pack to further dissuade youth from purchasing cigarettes.
E-cigarettes and vape pens are more prevalent than cigarettes in schools these days, and several participants stated that their schools provided them with training for spotting e-cigarettes. A participant from Palm Beach County stated that several students purchased hookah pens and were selling them on her campus, while another PBC participant said he noticed a decrease in smoky student bathrooms which may be stemming from use of vaping devices. Another Palm Beach participant noted that even though he teaches at a middle school, e-cigarettes are an issue with some of the students. A participant from Wakulla County stated this past year there were only two instances of tobacco use on campus and both involved e-cigarettes. One participant noted that an underage student was caught with an e-cigarette in class and said his parents bought it for him. Another participant said an elementary student was caught using a vape pen in class which he probably had taken from his mother’s tobacco shop. The student was suspended and afterwards the administrators talked to the class about vape pens, and the everlasting health problems associated with them. One participant stated her principal said smoking on campus has dwindled, but vape pens are so readily available and are glamorized. The students say they are using the pens because they have been told they are not are bad for them as real cigarettes. One participant said her principal has a no-nonsense approach to tobacco on her campus. This principal has sent automated messages to parents reminding them that e-cigarettes are illegal for minors. If caught, they will be confiscated and given to police as evidence. One student served as an example when he was expelled this year, and the entire student body have been much more weary about showing off their e-cigarettes.
When it comes to suspensions, schools across Florida appear to differ, even within the same district. In many instances smoking materials are confiscated, students are written up, and parents are called. In some cases, suspensions are not handed out until the second or third violation as the “ultimate goal is to educate the students about the dangers of tobacco use instead of simply suspending from school which would actually give them more time to engage in the activity.” One participant from St. Lucie County said the students at her school had a choice of a smoke-free class with their parents for six weeks (one day a week) or a two day suspension for the first violation. Most took the suspension because parents had to work. Sadly, the parents were aware their child was smoking, but felt they couldn’t tell their child what do to if they themselves were smoking. Another participant from Miami-Dade said getting caught with tobacco is a 1 to 5 day suspension, depending on the student and if they are a repeat discipline problem. A Palm Beach participant said “first and second violations are dealt with an immediate 5 day out of school suspension.” Another Palm Beach participant who spoke to her school police, stated she was told tobacco products in a student’s possession is a 10 day out of school suspension. One participant stated that since he is at an alternative education center, they have an unusually high percentage of former and suspected drug/tobacco users and have had to crackdown hard on violators to set an example for the students and parents. A Clay County participant said students caught with tobacco go to “Tobacco Court” and have to serve mandatory community service for their offense as well as school suspension. It sends a powerful message to the kids that this is not only a serious offense, it is an inconvenience. The students didn’t like it, but it dramatically reduced tobacco use. One participant said her district “does not have a zero tolerance rule for tobacco, but her school is stricter. She stated that students having tobacco will get you suspended, finding it a second time or using it will get you expelled. However, if a student is found using smokeless tobacco, they are only suspended, not expelled as with smoking. A Brevard participant stated they “issue a $35 ticket to those under the age of 18 who are caught on school grounds with tobacco products” as well as issued suspensions. Finally, a participant from Pinellas County stated that their schools and All Children’s Hospital has been partnering to offer students who get caught using tobacco on campus to attend an educational program rather than suspension for the first offense.
There are policies in place for tobacco-free campuses, according to participants, but not all policies are enforced whether students or employees. One participant from Martin County said that the boys using smokeless tobacco at the high school did not seem to have the same rules applied to them. Participants from St. Lucie County and Miami Dade schools have observed teachers smoking in their parked cars during breaks, and one noted the smell of tobacco smoke in the faculty bathroom. One participant in Broward stated that while they have a tobacco-free policy in place, the “cafeteria ladies take a smoke break outside the back entrance to the kitchen,” and the administration says “well, no one sees.” Another St. Lucie participant witnessed teachers opening up their windows in their classroom to smoke, as well as smoking in areas visible to students, visitors, etc. Many Palm Beach participants stated that while the majority of employees follow the no smoking policy, not everyone does, and many are still allowed to continue to smoke on campus.
On the other side of the coin, participants stated that the tobacco policy is highly enforced among employees, teachers, and parents, not just among students. A participant from Bradford County stated her administrator has given verbal warnings to parents and bus drivers seen smoking at the edge of campus boundaries. A Palm Beach County participant said the administration informs visitors of their violation and they are asked to stop. Their failure to comply leads to them being escorted off campus. One Brevard participant said a teacher was fired for smoking a cigarette in his car during one of his breaks.
The biggest complaint participants stated was that while their school had a tobacco policy in place and was “tobacco-free,” the worse violators were the parents who were in the drop-off line and nothing was said or done. They would like the school districts to enforce the tobacco-free policy in the drop-off lines. One participant said her principal has told parents to put out their cigarettes while waiting in line for their children. Another participant stated that his administration has had to “break up smokers in the stadium at a football game” even though there is a tobacco policy in place. A Broward participant said you can see parents lighting up behind the bleachers and in the parking lot during sporting events and nothing is done about it. The majority of participants would like to see stronger consequences for those visitors who violate the tobacco policy on campus as it sets a bad example for the students.
Some participants spoke of underage students being able to purchase tobacco products without much problem in their counties and would like to see stricter laws in place for the violators, both the teens and the store owners. One participant in Dade County and another in Broward said the “Mom and Pop” type of convenience stores do not often ask for ID to purchase tobacco products.
A participant stated that her district does not do enough when it comes to giving students the necessary knowledge about all tobacco products. While she said she tries to teach an anti-smoking lesson every year, for the most part the students know very little about the effects of tobacco yet still continue to use the products.
One participant summed up Florida tobacco policies nicely. He said that while a Florida statute appears to penalize those who know or should know that they are distributing tobacco products to minors, the “level of offense – a second-degree felony – is grossly disproportionate to the amount of damage the act of selling these products to minors can do. You cannot increase the threat against the minors themselves for purchasing tobacco because they have little to lose. However “the adults – the store owners, neighbors, family members and so on – who have something to lose” should be held accountable. While many school districts have consequences in place under the Student Code of Conduct, “there are only vague intimations about consequences for staff members, and no consequences listed for non-student and non-employee visitors who violate this policy.” School policies are a first step, but enforcement of these policies for everyone is necessary.