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High school cracks down on smokers

Christina Proctor

A mere fence away from the high school campus, students gather and light up a noontime smoke.

The mini-park, or “lower” as the students call it for its location next to the lower parking lot, is the traditional hangout for student smokers. The dirt in the small city park is littered with cigarette butts.

The crowds are decidedly smaller this year. One reason is the closing of the South Tahoe High School campus to the new freshman class. The other is the police officer patrolling nearby.

“The first week they just sat out there and took down names and gave out citations,” a senior said, glancing around before she took a puff.

“They did it without any warnings,” a red-haired girl said indignantly.

“You can’t say it’s OK to smoke here for years and then change it,” a dark-haired girl said. They all claimed that their parents were aware of their smoking habits, but asked not to be named.

None of these teens have a problem with the change in California law. On Jan. 1, 1997, an amendment to the penal code made it illegal not only for people under 18 to purchase tobacco but also to possess it. The law allows for a fine up to $75 and 30 hours of community service.

The teens agree it should be illegal for them to smoke, but they are still angry about the sudden enforcement of the law in an area they thought of as a haven.

“This high school administration has never supported smoking,” said Associate Principal Jack Stafford. “But, I will admit we weren’t as vigorous in our enforcement.”

This year that policy is changing.

“We’ve come out pretty hard and we’re trying to get the point across,” said South Lake Tahoe Police officer Cam Carmichael. “We don’t want them smoking is the bottom line.”

Stafford and Carmichael said they can’t make a difference alone.

“A lot of these kids are allowed to smoke at home,” Stafford stated.

“Parents have to be a part of the solution,” Carmichael added.

The teens claimed that enforcement of the law at the mini-park would only send them off campus farther for their nicotine fix.

“They’re just going to go out in their cars and smoke,” a senior girl said.

Still all the teens admitted that the population of the popular hang-out had dwindled.

There is also the question of where the teens are obtaining their illegal cigarettes. In August the California Food and Drug Branch conducted an “attempt-to-buy survey” in South Lake Tahoe. Teens accompanied by adult volunteers entered stores and attempted to purchase tobacco. If the sale was rung up it was considered a “buy.” The teens were also required to be honest about their age and show genuine identification if asked. One store on the South Shore area was willing to sell, according to the El Dorado County Department of Health. The teen picked a product from a self-service display. The merchant asked for his identification that showed he was not old enough to purchase and still sold him cigarettes.

A survey done in May by teens aged 14 to 17 showed sales to minors at 17 percent on the Western Slope and 5 percent in South Lake Tahoe. Although there has been a decline statewide since California’s Stop Tobacco Access to Kids Enforcement went into effect in 1995, El Dorado County’s rate has been climbing. Betty Tapper, El Dorado County health educator, said Tahoe’s sales rate are dropping despite the county’s numbers.

“In all of our surveys the number of merchants willing to sell has dropped. It takes a lot of merchant education,” Tapper said. “We’ve almost got rid of over-the-counter sales, but we have to keep reminding them.”

Penalties for selling tobacco to minors are $200 to $300 fines for a first offense.

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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