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Rekindling of an Old Tobacco War : Lawmakers, Educators Drawn Into New Debate Over Smoking in School

Times Staff Writer

Sitting in the classroom, thinking it’s a drag.

Listening to the teacher rap just ain’t my bag,

When two bells ring you know it’s my cue,

Going to meet the boys on floor number two

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Smoking in the boys’ room

Teachers don’t you fill me up with your rules,

Cause everybody knows that smoking ain’t allowed in school

--from “Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room” by Cub Koda

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It was just last year that the Heavy Metal rock band Motley Crue released its popular remake of the song “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room"--this time adding a video portraying a group of rebellious teen-age smokers taunting a stodgy old high school principal who has found them smoking in the boy’s restroom.

But if some California legislators have their way, they won’t be smoking there--or anywhere else on high school campuses.

The latest round in the increasingly fierce and emotional war against smoking came last month when a bill that would outlaw smoking areas in public high schools breezed through the Assembly, 52 to 16. Observers say it is likely to do the same when it reaches the Senate floor sometime this summer and, if passed, it would go into effect this fall.

In one corner of the battle are health and education officials, parents and legislators outraged by California’s double standard on teen-age smoking and determined to abolish the so-called “druggie dens” that, many say, are luring students into a world of addiction to tobacco and often stronger, more potent drugs.

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In the other corner are a handful of high school administrators who admire the bill’s idealism but say it flies in the face of common sense. One Orange County school principal went so far as to characterize legislators as “blind, hard-headed, dumb people.”

William J. Filante would prefer that no one smoke anything anywhere.

“What can I do? I can’t change the entire world,” Filante, a Marin County state assemblyman and physician, lamented. “I’d love to tell everyone to stop smoking tomorrow--it’s killing you and it’s bothering me.”

But Filante, who practiced ophthalmology before he won an Assembly seat eight years ago, is a realist, so he is tackling the small part of the world he can change.

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“You know, I’m the doctor in the house here and I know how bad tobacco is,” said Filante (R-Greenbrae), author of the bill that will eliminate high school smoking areas. “I don’t want the schools in the position of encouraging that. Now I realize I can’t stop the smoking or the use of illicit drugs altogether, but I can make a statement, as a physician, as a parent, as a state and as a school district.”

8-Year-Old Law

Filante’s bill would repeal an 8-year-old law that allowed school districts to set up designated smoking areas. About half of California’s 1,096 districts allow smoking on campus, including Irvine and Tustin unified school districts in Orange County. Four of Fullerton’s seven high schools also have smoking areas under that district’s optional rule.

Filante is one of many legislators, parents and doctors disgusted with the “utter hypocrisy” of contradictory California laws that allow minors to smoke in public schools, even though it is illegal for them to actually buy cigarettes. (California prohibits the sale of cigarettes to anyone under 18 but has no minimum age requirement for smoking in high schools.)

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“It’s almost analogous to giving them a place to snort cocaine or shoot up, just as long as we don’t catch them actually buying or selling the stuff,” said Dr. Jim Nethery, president-elect of the American Cancer Society California chapter, and a maxillofacial prosthodontist who often deals with cancer of the head and neck at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana. “It doesn’t make a bit of sense.”

Filante recognizes that teen-age smoking will continue but said without high schools’ condoning it, many potential smokers will shy away.

“When society makes a rule and sets a standard, most of us follow it,” he said. “I’m looking for some way of doing this with peer pressure. I mean, I don’t like the idea of big daddy coming down, but I’ve found that kids, like anybody else, do far better policing themselves.”

Had Filante asked Gary Norton for his opinion 13 years ago, he would have found an ally. In fact, at a 1973 school board meeting to consider the then-revolutionary idea of allowing smoking areas in local high schools, Norton stood up and gave a passionate speech against the proposal.

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But he lost, and 13 years later Norton says he is glad he did. Now principal of Irvine High School, he has mellowed considerably after more than a decade in the trenches and has come to accept the smoking areas he once loathed as a practical solution to a very real problem.

“It’s interesting,” Norton, an ardent nonsmoker, said philosophically. “It’s a difficult thing for me. I find myself sounding like I’m defending smoking, but I’m not. In the best of all possible worlds, I wish cigarettes weren’t available at all, but that’s not the way it is in the real world. I didn’t invent that, I just try to live with it. . . .

‘Problem . . . Multiplies’

“The problem doesn’t go away because you don’t allow smoking on campus--it multiplies. I would challenge anybody to go to a school that says it doesn’t allow smoking. What you’ll find are kids hanging around the community (smoking off campus).”

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That was the problem Fullerton’s Buena Park High School faced three years ago. Since students were not allowed to smoke in school at that time, many would traipse across the street to a large apartment complex, or down the road to an off-campus cul-de-sac. After community complaints, the school finally created a smoking area in a grassy area in front of the school and then recently moved the area to a more discreet location behind the building.

“It’s been a practical experience for us,” said Assistant Principal George West. “We have a much better atmosphere across the street now.”

However, a parent group at Buena Park is pushing for renewing the smoking ban. West said that the school will enforce such a ban if Filante’s bill is passed, but “it does create another set of problems.”

Smoking in high school has been a big thing ever since teen-agers discovered they could swipe a pack from dad, or pump coins into a machine when nobody was looking. According to the latest estimates from the American Lung Assn., about 1.7 million teen-age girls and 1.6 million teen-age boys smoke cigarettes regularly--about 12% of all teen-agers in the United States. Another study showed that 21% of all high school seniors nationwide smoke, and federal agencies say 3 million people under 21 use smokeless tobacco. And, as teen-agers who smoke usually become grown-ups who smoke, there is one more relevant statistic--320,000 Americans will die this year as a result of cigarette smoking, according to the Cancer Society.

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Bailey Daugherty smoked two packs a day for 37 years. He enjoyed the nicotine taste, and although he tried quitting numerous times, he just couldn’t overcome what he knew was an addiction. During a routine medical checkup, a doctor told him he could inhale more than he could exhale, an early sign of emphysema. Daugherty finally gathered the will to kick the habit and hasn’t taken a puff since Nov. 5, 1981.

“I was an addict for 37 years until I finally got smart enough to quit,” he said. “I decided I wanted to live a little longer.”

Daugherty, however, thinks the idea of banning smoking in high school is just plain silly.

“We have a lot of people in power today who think they can legislate behavior, which is ridiculous,” said Daugherty, principal at Silverado Continuation High School in Mission Viejo. “They’re trying to legislate for the students’ health, but . . . if they’re addicted, a kid will give up his education to go smoke.”

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Silverado and the county’s 12 other continuation high schools may be hit hardest by Filante’s bill. As many as nine out of every 10 Silverado students smoke, and many of them, ostensibly sent to continuation high school because of “academic deficiencies,” are really there because strict smoking rules at their former schools forced them to skip classes in order to get a fix, Daugherty said.

Smoked Off Campus

Seventeen-year-old Stacy and her friend Doreen, said they used to ditch classes at their old school to go light up somewhere off campus.

“She used to come pick me up in the morning and we’d go to McDonald’s and smoke,” said Stacy, who smokes about a pack and a half a day. “We hung out there so long we never went to first period. And then we’d leave again during lunch period sometimes.”

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Now, she said, she would never skip classes at Silverado to go smoke.

“It’s been so good to have it all out in the open,” said Daugherty, who remembers years of patrolling high school bathrooms. “It’s been so good to have the smoking in one area--you know what they’re smoking, you can see ‘em smoking. When they have to go out in the bushes, hey, they go smoke a joint. You don’t get to see them.”

Daugherty can easily keep an eye on the action from his office, through a huge window that faces the school’s popular smoking quad.

Difficulty in Quitting

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Reclining in his chair and recalling his days as a smoker, he talks about how difficult quitting is. For 20 years, his family asked him to give it up, he said, but that was never enough. Likewise, keeping teen-agers from smoking in school would be virtually impossible, akin to forcing a cat to swim to Balboa Island, he said.

“When break time comes, they’ll probably head out the back door, over to the shopping center or up to that hill up there,” he said, gazing out the window at the students milling about the smoking quad. He said he dreads the idea of monitoring a school made up primarily of smokers. “It’ll be like trying to keep a prison.”

A Silverado junior named Matt, 17, who said he is trying to quit, acknowledged that few teen-agers he knew would stop smoking, even during school hours, and said many of them would find a way around the new rule. Asked what he would do, he grinned and said: “Probably go to the bathroom, find a stall, light up, take a big hit, put it out and hold it in.”

In fact, of several dozen students interviewed across the county, smokers and nonsmokers alike said new legislation would not curb smoking in schools very much.

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“It would keep me from smoking during break, but I’d probably be one of the ones who headed for the bathrooms or across the street,” said Bruce, 18, a pack-a-day smoker. “You’ve got your mind made up. I’m hurting myself. You can’t stop me from doing that. You take care of yourself, and I’ll take care of myself.”

Bruce said he started smoking cigarettes two years ago in order to get away from a four-year marijuana habit. He went to the Orange CareUnit, where he finally realized “that pot was really messing me up.” To his way of thinking, smoking tobacco is the healthy thing to do.

‘Like a Crutch’

“It’s like a crutch,” he said. “You smoke that instead of joints or a bong.”

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Bruce said people often discriminate against teen-agers who smoke because they often don’t fit in.

“Everyone classifies this as Red-Eye High, but it’s not,” said Bruce. “People don’t come here stoned every morning. It’s just a stereotype.”

Officials at Woodbridge High School in Irvine have devised what they think is a workable compromise between carte blanche and outright abolition of smoking.

Like its sister schools in the Irvine Unified School District, Woodbridge offers a designated smoking area, but in order to take advantage of it, students must get a permit signed by their parents. Of the 1,430 teen-agers at the 5-year-old high school, only 38 actually have smoking passes and tobacco is rarely a problem on campus.

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“It’s been a win-win (situation) in a lot of ways,” said Woodbridge Principal Greg Cops. “I think it’s a good model because it’s consistent with the airline approach. Look at TWA or United--they don’t say smoking is good for you, they just put you in a separate section where you can smoke and your smoke won’t bother anybody. . . . People that smoke aren’t inherently bad. They’re making bad choices like everybody does. It’s not healthy to be overweight, but they don’t keep you out of school for it.”

The system makes the school consistent with the home--if the parent doesn’t want the child to smoke at home, he won’t be able to smoke at school either, but if he lights up along with his mother and father at the dinner table, he’s free to do so during lunch as well.

“We still take the position that smoking is harmful to your health,” said Cops, “but in spite of that position, we feel that the ultimate authority for each student is the family. . . . I can’t see because there’s a law passed in Sacramento, all of a sudden they’re going to stop smoking.”

Not Seen as Big Problem

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Students interviewed at Woodbridge said there isn’t a big problem with smoking at their school, although many of their classmates who smoke avoid doing so at school because they are athletes or because they are “stuck up and don’t want to look bad,” as one student put it.

The smoking area behind the main buildings and across from the weight room is sparsely populated, and often empty during the school’s 40-minute “open campus” lunch period, when most of the student body treks down the street to the local burger joint. Although a handful of students without passes can usually be found smoking in the church parking lot across the street, Assistant Principal Mark Reider said only one student has been suspended for smoking in the last five months.

For Cops, it’s certainly a change of pace from his days at University High School, where he was an assistant principal before smoking areas were approved. There, he said, the school had a virtual police squad of 16 college students hired to supervise the halls four hours each day.

“It was a big cat-and-mouse game,” he said. “We’d have a male and female supervisor in each restroom, and they’d end up quitting all the time cause they got tired of it. And we’d have to go up to the university to recruit more students. We’d go through hundreds in a year. A lot of resources and a lot of time was going into it and the ultimate effect was pretty small.”

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If the anti-smoking law goes into effect, he estimated that it would cost each school as much as $30,000 a year to enforce, and despite his name, Cops does not relish the idea of spending his lunch hour patrolling bathrooms again.

Still, he is somewhat philosophical about the whole thing.

“Schools are simply microcosms of society,” said Woodbridge Principal Cops. “If it becomes a debate in the outside world, as it is now--you know, whether the office worker can smoke on the job--that’s an issue that will be dealt with in the high school too.”


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