Schools start testing teens for tobacco use

Posted: Wednesday, October 09, 2002

VESTAVIA HILLS, Ala. -- Breath mints won't cut it anymore for students who have been smoking in the bathroom -- some schools around the country are administering urine tests to teen-agers to find out whether they have been using tobacco.

Opponents say such testing violates students' rights and can keep them out of the extracurricular activities they need to stay on track. But some advocates say smoking in the boys' room is a ticket to more serious drug use.

''Some addicted drug users look back to cigarettes as the start of it all,'' said Jeff McAlpin, director of marketing for EDPM, a Birming-ham drug-testing company.

Short of catching them in the act, school officials previously had no way of proving students had been smoking.

Testing students for drugs has spread in recent years and was given a boost in June when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed random testing of those in extracurricular activities. Tobacco can easily be added to the usual battery of tests.

''I agree with it,'' said 16-year-old Vestavia Hills High School junior Rosemary Stafford, a member of the marching band. ''It's illegal, it's addictive. Maybe the punishment shouldn't be as severe, but they should test for it.''

In Alabama, where the legal age for purchasing and smoking tobacco products is 19, about a dozen districts, mostly in the Birming-ham area, test for nicotine along with alcohol and several illegal drugs, including marijuana.

In most cases, the penalties for testing positive for cotinine -- a metabolic byproduct that remains in the body after smoking or chewing tobacco -- are the same as those for illegal drugs: The student's parents are notified and he or she is usually placed on school probation and briefly suspended from sports or other activities.

Alabama's Hoover school system randomly tested 679 of its 1,500 athletes for drug use this past school year. Fourteen high school students tested positive, 12 of them for tobacco.

Elsewhere around the country, schools in Blackford County, Ind., test for tobacco use in athletes, participants in other extracurricular activities, and students who take driver's education or apply for parking permits.

In Lockney, Texas, a federal judge recently struck down the district's testing of all students for the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco.

In Columbia County, Fla., the school board will vote Tuesday on a testing policy that would include tobacco. Teenagers who take part in extracurricular activities or apply for permits to drive to school would be screened.

''Tobacco does and will affect a larger majority of the students than alcohol or drugs,'' said Gloria Spizey, the county's coordinator for Safe and Drug-Free Schools. ''Tobacco use can be devastating. We felt it needed to stand with the other drugs.''

Screenings can detect cotinine for up to 10 days in regular smokers of about a half a pack, or 10 cigarettes, a day, McAlpin said. Experts say it is unlikely that cotinine would collect in people exposed to secondhand smoke.

''Tobacco is illegal for them to have -- it's also a health and safety issue,'' said Phil Hastings, supervisor of safety and alternative education for schools in Decatur, which recently adopted a testing program that includes tobacco. ''We've got a responsibility to let the kids know the dangers of tobacco use.''

While random drug testing overall is being fought by the American Civil Liberties Union and students' rights groups, the addition of nicotine testing has drawn little opposition.

Guidelines published last month by the White House drug office do not specifically address tobacco testing.

''On tobacco, we have the same policy as on testing for drugs -- it may not be right for every school and community,'' said Jennifer de Vallance, press secretary for the office. ''We encourage parents and officials to assess the extent and nature of the tobacco problem.''

Shawn Heller, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy in Washington, said tobacco use by teen-agers is a major problem, but testing for it is just another step in the invasion of students' privacy.

''We're making schools like prisons,'' he said.

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