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Watch Out for the Lurking Tobacco Police

Smoking: Things have gone too far in controlling what is a legal substance.

March 30, 1998|PETER BEAUDRAULT | Peter Beaudrault is chief operating officer for Hard Rock Cafe International

Last fall, Ross Volbrecht was to play his final high school football game. As rites of passage go, a senior playing his last game ranks high on the list. It's safe to assume that Ross relished the idea of going into battle one last time with his teammates in Nashville, Ind.

Unfortunately, Ross was barred by school officials from playing. He wasn't failing classes, running with a gang or guilty of cheating. No, Ross Volbrecht was kicked off his high school football team because during a routine drug test for student athletes, a contraband substance was found: nicotine.

Ross had taken up chewing tobacco. The nicotine put him in violation of the school's no-drugs policy. It didn't matter to school officials that Ross, 18, was legally of age to purchase and use tobacco. Ross was punished for using a product that the administrators decided was bad for him.

Some feel that Ross got what he deserved because in order to play football, he was required to sign an agreement not to use drugs or alcohol.

This reminds me of a case in Fairfax, Va., where a 12-year-old honors student was almost suspended for possessing Advil. The school board rethought the suspension after deciding that she had not violated the spirit of their drug policy.

Ross, too, adhered to the spirit of his school's drug ban. He was not using illegal drugs or drinking. He had nicotine in his system, not "drugs." If all such "drugs" are contraband, why doesn't the school suspend athletes for caffeine use as well?

Ross Volbrecht is just one of the latest victims of a "nanny culture" that places its vision of public health--defined by any number of special interest groups--ahead of the right to personal choice. From the efforts of parents to stop drug use among students, this campaign has grown to extreme and bizarre proportions, as in the anti-smoking activists' crusade to ban tobacco products in the U.S. Ross' story would have been improbable 10 years ago. Today, with tobacco squarely in the sights of the public health fanatics, his predicament was inevitable.

Public attitudes toward smoking have recently been shaped by campaigns against "second-hand smoke" and the crusades of states' attorneys general. The original campaign against cigarettes lost steam when many people simply stopped smoking. Those who refused were tucked safely away in smoking sections. That's when the coalition of public health gurus found ways to turn smoking from a personal risk to a societal hazard. Second-hand smoke is now considered a major health problem despite quality studies pointing out it's more hype than fact.

This insanity won't stop with tobacco. It seems we can't go a day without hearing about the dangers of fatty foods or problems with meat and poultry. Even perfumes and colognes are being banned in some parts of the country.

The need for control is so great, the president recently made it part of his legacy to outlaw smoking in front of many federal government buildings. If you're wondering what the New World Order looks like, this is it.

Some states, including Florida, Minnesota, North Carolina and Texas, have already passed laws fining minors up to $1,000 and suspending their driver's licenses for trying to purchase tobacco. In Idaho, that offense is enough to be jailed for six months. While no one supports underage smoking, isn't spending time locked up more damaging than puffing a cigarette or chewing tobacco?

Those leading the charge against tobacco once scoffed at the notion that cigarettes would one day be a concern of the police. Today, there are communities where police officers waste their time writing tickets for smoking.

If you don't think the loss of personal freedom is a pressing issue, ask Ross Volbrecht. My guess is he'd tell you it's worth worrying about.

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