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Rekindling of an Old Tobacco War : Lawmakers, Educators Drawn Into New Debate Over Smoking in School

June 12, 1986|PETER BAKER | Times Staff Writer

Sitting in the classroom, thinking it's a drag.

Listening to the teacher rap just ain't my bag,

When two bells ring you know it's my cue,

Going to meet the boys on floor number two

Smoking in the boys' room

Teachers don't you fill me up with your rules,

Cause everybody knows that smoking ain't allowed in school

--from "Smokin' in the Boy's Room" by Cub Koda

It was just last year that the Heavy Metal rock band Motley Crue released its popular remake of the song "Smokin' in the Boys' Room"--this time adding a video portraying a group of rebellious teen-age smokers taunting a stodgy old high school principal who has found them smoking in the boy's restroom.

But if some California legislators have their way, they won't be smoking there--or anywhere else on high school campuses.

The latest round in the increasingly fierce and emotional war against smoking came last month when a bill that would outlaw smoking areas in public high schools breezed through the Assembly, 52 to 16. Observers say it is likely to do the same when it reaches the Senate floor sometime this summer and, if passed, it would go into effect this fall.

In one corner of the battle are health and education officials, parents and legislators outraged by California's double standard on teen-age smoking and determined to abolish the so-called "druggie dens" that, many say, are luring students into a world of addiction to tobacco and often stronger, more potent drugs.

In the other corner are a handful of high school administrators who admire the bill's idealism but say it flies in the face of common sense. One Orange County school principal went so far as to characterize legislators as "blind, hard-headed, dumb people."

William J. Filante would prefer that no one smoke anything anywhere.

"What can I do? I can't change the entire world," Filante, a Marin County state assemblyman and physician, lamented. "I'd love to tell everyone to stop smoking tomorrow--it's killing you and it's bothering me."

But Filante, who practiced ophthalmology before he won an Assembly seat eight years ago, is a realist, so he is tackling the small part of the world he can change.

"You know, I'm the doctor in the house here and I know how bad tobacco is," said Filante (R-Greenbrae), author of the bill that will eliminate high school smoking areas. "I don't want the schools in the position of encouraging that. Now I realize I can't stop the smoking or the use of illicit drugs altogether, but I can make a statement, as a physician, as a parent, as a state and as a school district."

8-Year-Old Law

Filante's bill would repeal an 8-year-old law that allowed school districts to set up designated smoking areas. About half of California's 1,096 districts allow smoking on campus, including Irvine and Tustin unified school districts in Orange County. Four of Fullerton's seven high schools also have smoking areas under that district's optional rule.

Filante is one of many legislators, parents and doctors disgusted with the "utter hypocrisy" of contradictory California laws that allow minors to smoke in public schools, even though it is illegal for them to actually buy cigarettes. (California prohibits the sale of cigarettes to anyone under 18 but has no minimum age requirement for smoking in high schools.)

"It's almost analogous to giving them a place to snort cocaine or shoot up, just as long as we don't catch them actually buying or selling the stuff," said Dr. Jim Nethery, president-elect of the American Cancer Society California chapter, and a maxillofacial prosthodontist who often deals with cancer of the head and neck at Western Medical Center in Santa Ana. "It doesn't make a bit of sense."

Filante recognizes that teen-age smoking will continue but said without high schools' condoning it, many potential smokers will shy away.

"When society makes a rule and sets a standard, most of us follow it," he said. "I'm looking for some way of doing this with peer pressure. I mean, I don't like the idea of big daddy coming down, but I've found that kids, like anybody else, do far better policing themselves."

Had Filante asked Gary Norton for his opinion 13 years ago, he would have found an ally. In fact, at a 1973 school board meeting to consider the then-revolutionary idea of allowing smoking areas in local high schools, Norton stood up and gave a passionate speech against the proposal.

But he lost, and 13 years later Norton says he is glad he did. Now principal of Irvine High School, he has mellowed considerably after more than a decade in the trenches and has come to accept the smoking areas he once loathed as a practical solution to a very real problem.

"It's interesting," Norton, an ardent nonsmoker, said philosophically. "It's a difficult thing for me. I find myself sounding like I'm defending smoking, but I'm not. In the best of all possible worlds, I wish cigarettes weren't available at all, but that's not the way it is in the real world. I didn't invent that, I just try to live with it. . . .

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