Smoking Teens May End Up in Court
RACHEL LA CORTE
Nov. 01, 1998
PLANTATION, Fla. (AP) _ Seventeen-year-old Margarita Psihogios started smoking two years ago because it was cool. All her friends were doing it.
Besides, she only smoked a pack a week, she said.
But it wasn't so cool when the senior at Plantation High got caught with a cigarette in her mouth as she was leaving the school parking lot.
She received a written citation to appear before Judge Steven Shutter in teen smoking court, a pilot program that is part of Florida's new tough line against juvenile smokers.
Under Florida's new tobacco law for minors which took effect last October, police can ticket those under 18 caught with tobacco.
On their first offense, they face up to 16 hours of community service or a $25 fine _ the amount in Broward County is $53 because of court costs. Shutter said most choose community service because $53 is ``a very expensive cigarette.''
In addition, the youngsters must attend a tobacco education program.
Margarita didn't take the citation seriously. She gave the police officer her mother's name, not her own.
After Margarita skipped out on her first court date, her mother, Angie Francos, received a notice saying she needed to appear in court or her license would be suspended. Margarita had some explaining to do.
She did appear at her second-ordered court date on Oct. 9 with her mother. Instead of paying the $53 fine, however, she chose to do eight hours of community service. She can either work at the courthouse, on cleanup detail at the county's parks or with animal control.
``I think the law is kind of outrageous,'' Margarita said. ``I don't even really like cigarettes. But sometimes I just want one.''
According to the American Lung Association, 75 percent of adult smokers started smoking before age 18.
That's why Shutter wants to get through to some of the teens before they're addicted. ``Is it changing a majority of the teen-agers? Absolutely not,'' he said. ``My goal is 20 percent.''
Shutter said he has seen about 600 youngsters in his courtroom since the court program started in January.
His tactics are somewhat different from what might be expected. Instead of intimidating the youngsters who appear in his courtroom, he tries to win them over. He often jokes when they approach the bench with a parent: ``Don't come back and visit,'' he said before moving on to the next case.
``If you push teen-agers, they're going to push right back,'' Shutter said. ``My position is, `You are not a bad person. What you are doing is a bad thing.'''
Shutter, who has never smoked himself, sometimes invites a smoker to court.
During a recent session of the smoking court, which is held once a month, 60-year-old Earl Mogk spoke with the help of an artificial voice box. After smoking for 40 years, he was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx and had his larynx and vocal cords removed.
``I'm here to tell you I was just as cool as you,'' Mogk said. ``Every one-third of you is going to be dead or like me.''
Luzia Rodriguez cried as Mogk spoke. Her 14-year-old son, Alex Cavallo, was caught smoking in the mall with his girlfriend and a friend. Ms. Rodriguez said two of her friends have died from smoking-related illnesses and she's concerned for her son's health.
``I think this is a blessing. Everything that is being done to alert and teach our children,'' she said of the program.
Recent statistics from the American Lung Association show that 430,700 people die each year from smoking-related illnesses. About 3,000 youngsters begin smoking everyday.
According to statistics released earlier this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Joe Camel years of cigarette advertising _ between 1988 and 1996 _ saw a 73 percent increase in the number of American youngsters who became daily smokers.
Shutter said these numbers are proof that something more needs to be done to curb teen smoking. He said Florida International University has begun a six-month study to determine whether the court is having any effect on teens.
``If it's successful, maybe the program can spread,'' Shutter said. ``What clearly is needed is a national policy.''
Still, many teens said this program won't make them quit; they'll just get better at hiding it.
``They can't stop me from doing what I want to do,'' said 15-year-old Zachariah Machleit.
His mother, Darlene Wheeler, agreed.
``Teen-agers today have an attitude problem,'' she said. ``He's got a mind of his own and he doesn't listen to anybody.''
Shutter realizes that he may be talking to a brick wall when he talks to these teens, but said if he can get through to just a few children, it's worth it.
``This is important,'' he said. ``This could be as important as anything else I've ever done.''