Law doesn't stop teen smoking

Clara Stiefel's jaw dropped in amazement when she learned that just a few years ago, middle and high school students could regularly be seen smoking cigarettes around town.

The high visibility changed with a town ordinance passed in 2001 that bans children under age 18 from smoking in public places. But that hardly means the problem has disappeared, some youth say.

Stiefel, an eighth-grader at Craig Middle School works with a tobacco prevention group called Get R!EAL that aims to uncover the adverting "lies" large tobacco companies use to hook young smokers and tobacco users. The group's goal is to inform students about the dangers of tobacco in an effort to help them make healthy choices.

But still, Stiefel knows that cigarettes and tobacco use is popular among students.

"I think a lot of people smoke, especially once they get into high school," she said. "When you get older you start doing it a little more."

Ninth-grader Katie Jurney estimates about 50 percent of students at Moffat County High School smoke cigarettes, at least occasionally.

"In middle school it wasn't an issue but I know people that smoke even in my grade," she said. "I think some people do it because they see their friends doing it."

Many students smoke after school and some get in a smoke during lunch breaks, she said. Juniors and seniors have the option of eating lunch off campus.

According to the Craig Police Department, 37 citations for underage possession of tobacco have been issued since the law went into effect.

Offenders are fined up to $30 and sentenced to a one-hour class on the use and effects of tobacco for a first violation. The fine increases to up to $50 for repeat offenders, class time is bumped up to three hours and the offender could be sentenced to complete up to 24 hours of public service.

But other adults are also trying to curb youth smoking.

What used to be a popular smoking hang-out for middle school students, the Kum & Go convenience store across from the school at Yampa and Ninth, has buckled down.

General manager for about a year, Rick Arnold, is strict about asking for identification from youth purchasing cigarettes.

"You can kind of guess who's trying to get away with it by their actions," he said.

A sign on the building's exterior reads "smoking is prohibited on the premises for people under age 18." If Arnold sees a parent or an adult pass off a pack of recently purchased cigarettes, he'll refuse to sell to that person again.

"It used to be a big problem here," he said. "I've been known to call the police."

That leaves groups like Get R!EAL to get the word out that tobacco products are dangerous for youth, said coordinator Kathy Bockelman. She is also the counselor at Craig Middle School.

The student group is planning a smoke-free sit-in in the smoking section of a local restaurant. It's planning a similar event at Craig Lanes bowling alley.

Students in the group have memorized facts such as 4,200 Americans die each year from smoking-related incidents compared to 2,100 who die from skiing- related accidents. That was the basis for one presentation the group planned to take to Aspen's X-Games. But bad weather forced the group to cancel its plans.

At least with a local law in place, it sends a message to youth that smoking in public won't be tolerated, Bockelman said.

But she was unsure if that kept the numbers of youth smoking down.

"It doesn't seem as bad as it used to be," Bockelman said. "Maybe once a month we'll find cigarettes in a backpack or smell smoke in the bathrooms."

"A few years ago we'd see fifth- and sixth-graders smoking across the street and we couldn't do anything about it," she added.

Before the city ordinance, law enforcement had no jurisdiction over students smoking in public, though it wasn't allowed on school grounds.

"The law's been effective as far as you don't see it in public anymore," she said.

Amy Hatten can be reached at 824-7031 or by email at ahatten@craigdailypress.com.

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