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Florida has anti-smoking program model

Sunday, March 24, 2002

By Deborah Mendenhall

Strong laws, enforcement, surprise inspections and an intense education campaign aimed at youth rather than retailers have made Florida's anti-smoking program one of the best in the nation.

While Pennsylvania and other states struggle to reduce the number of stores that sell tobacco to children to 20 percent, Florida's rate has been about 7 percent for several years.

A toothy state law has been bolstered by strong local ordinances in 32 counties, said Debra Bodenstine, director of Florida's division of Health Awareness and Tobacco.

A cornerstone of the program is a countermarketing campaign that has grown steadily since it was launched in 1997. Aimed at and designed in part by youth, the campaign's motto is, "Their brand is lies, our brand is truth."

Florida has formed tobacco-free partnerships with 67 counties. Members are community leaders and youths who call themselves SWATs or Students Working Against Tobacco.

"SWATs embrace smokers," Bodenstine said. "Our youth did not want to alienate their friends. What angered them was the manipulation of the tobacco industry."

The grass-roots effort allows counties to zero in on local problems, such as children in rural areas who use chewing tobacco more than cigarettes, Bodenstine said.

The state emphasizes youth education. Schools receive kindergarten-through-12th-grade materials that can be used in a variety of classes. In math class, for example, children calculate how much a tobacco addiction will cost annually. In computer classes, a student learns commands that will take him through the effects tobacco has on a body that bears his face.

Established in 1997 with tobacco settlement money, the division's annual budget is $29.8 million. Overseeing Florida's efforts is an advisory board whose members range from a California tobacco expert to a representative from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pennsylvania doesn't have a specific budget for youth anti-tobacco programs, said Richard McGarvey, spokesman for the state Department of Health. Until this year, the state funded all its programs -- enforcement, education and the occasional youth summit -- out of a $1.5 million budget.

Tobacco settlement money has boosted the budget to $42.9 million this year, with 70 percent, or $30 million, going to counties for local programs.

In Florida, most tobacco law enforcement is handled by local police departments. But the Sunshine State also allocates $14.9 million to fund the state Bureau of Law Enforcement, which has 180 full-time officers. The bureau, which enforces tobacco and alcohol laws, was formed shortly after prohibition was repealed.

The bureau educates retailers about Florida's youth anti-smoking laws through Web-based training, said Russel R. Smith, a bureau major.

While the federal government requires that 10 percent of a state's stores be surveyed, Florida conducts routine random inspections and enforcement checks on about 40 percent of the state's retailers year-round, he said.

When underage customers buy cigarettes, the clerk is immediately arrested and the store owner is fined $1,000. After three offenses, a store's tobacco license can be permanently revoked.

"We don't let them know we are coming," he said. "The only time we send a letter is when the clerk doesn't sell to a teen-ager. Then we send a letter congratulating them."

A noncriminal law allows teen-agers caught with tobacco to be fined $25 and serve 16 hours of community service. After three offenses, a teen's driver's license can be suspended. In 2001, the licenses of 4,777 teen-agers were suspended, he said.

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