Criminalizing underage smoking is overkill

June 1, 2017

Measures taken by the Rochester City Council this month intended to curb underage smoking by criminalizing tobacco and e-cigarette use among minors is too excessive and may ultimately prove to be ineffective.

City council on May 22 approved an amendment to the city's code regarding the sale of tobacco to minors, as well as the sale and use of e-cigarettes and related products. Under the new ordinance, minors could be slapped with criminal misdemeanor charges for multiple violations of possession of tobacco products and e-cigarettes. Vendors would face criminal charges on their first offense. Fines would also be increased from $50 to $100, and include eight hours of community service for each violation.

The changes came at the request of the Rochester Police Department, specifically at the urging of school liaison officer Amy Drehmer, who told council members that the use of e-cigarettes among high school students is on the rise. By stiffening up the penalties, the department is hoping to discourage minors from partaking in use of the products, as well as cut underage sales.

Heightening the apparent need to respond with a new ordinance, Drehmer informed council members of another hidden danger of e-cigarettes: their potential use for ingesting illicit drugs.

Council members jumped on board with the increased penalties with no objection and few questions – perhaps to not appear as if they don't care about the health and well-being of children and teens. However, in doing so, council overlooked several critical issues that need to be addressed.

First off, we should note that the ordinance cannot be enforced in any of the high schools where the Rochester Police Department provides service, as all three schools are located within the city of Rochester Hills, whose ordinances categorize the offenses as civil infractions. Whether a similar ordinance has been pitched to officials in Rochester Hills – it so far hasn't been – was never questioned.

Additionally, we believe hobbling teens with a criminal conviction serves as less of a deterrent and more as a way to set them up for future failure. As colleges and employers increase scrutiny on disciplinary records, criminal convictions have long-lasting effects. Consider that the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates more than 3,200 youth under 18 try smoking each day for the first time, and it's not hard to imagine the havoc such a local ordinance could play with the future of those teens. 

Further, some national studies have shown that harsh laws do little to actually curb underage smoking, with about 66 percent of occasional smokers and 25 percent of regular smokers acquiring tobacco from social channels, such as friends or acquaintances. Strict policies often serve to foster a perception of "forbidden fruit," heightening the desire for such products among teens.

Concerns of illegal drug use should be addressed through the city's existing ordinances, which already provide appropriate punishments. Such ordinances also provide education and treatment options to be used by the court to limit further drug use, something the new tobacco and e-cigarette ordinances lack.

While we support efforts to address underage smoking, we believe such measures would be better thought out so as to address the problem in a realistic way and not punitively hamstring students and their future.

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