ANNAPOLIS – It’s a child’s responsibility to stay away from cigarettes, two lawmakers say, and they’re proposing bills to enforce just that.
But legislative attitudes that other issues are more important may crush the measures for the year.
Sen. Katherine Klausmeier, D-Baltimore County, and Delegate Kevin Kelly, D-Allegany, introduced measures to make minors’ purchases or attempted purchases of tobacco products a civil offense, punishing them with attendance at a smoking cessation clinic or another program espousing the dangers of smoking.
“We’ve done everything possible trying to prevent these kids from buying cigarettes,” Klausmeier said. “It’s time the minors have to take a little of the onus as well.”
Klausmeier said the bill would take responsibility for minors’ smoking away from tobacco companies, parents and the state and place it where it belongs — in minors’ hands.
But the measure is imperiled because the House Judiciary Committee voted against Kelly’s bill last week because, as Kelly said, they’d rather let judges discipline minors and “there are more urgent and critical issues out there.”
Smoking is the nation’s most preventable cause of premature death, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported, and 82 percent of daily smokers started when they were minors.
Although the percentage of high school seniors who smoke daily dropped from 23.1 percent to 15.6 between 1999 and 2004, according to a National Institute on Drug Abuse study, every day more than 6,000 American youth smoke their first cigarette.
And 12.7 percent of Marylanders ages 12 to 17 use tobacco at least monthly, another federal study found.
Klausmeier said her measure would cut into that figure, and she compared it to sending speeding minors to traffic school.
“I think it’s a good deterrent for these kids,” she said. “As they get older, hopefully they won’t continue” to smoke.
The Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee will hear the bill March 23.
It won’t pass, Kelly said, calling the issue “dead.”
The problem, he said, is that authorities in the state’s court system do not make minors’ tobacco use a priority — a sentiment echoed by Delegate Luiz Simmons, D-Montgomery, also a Judiciary Committee member.
“They don’t have the time to try every case or look into every case,” Simmons said. “It’s not that (Kelly’s) bill is not important. I think in the end it’s a question of priorities.”
A spokesperson for the Maryland Court of Appeals declined to comment, citing a lack of available information to address the issue.
He recalled a story the Cumberland Police chief told him once about an officer who threatened to issue a citation to a smoking minor. “Might as well give me one more,” the kid responded. “I’ve got three of them lying in my drawer at home.”
“Officers found out kids were never being processed in juvenile court,” Kelly said. “So why should officers waste their time? They’ve got far more important things to do than chase down 15-year-old kids smoking cigarettes.”
Neither law enforcement nor government should be responsible for preventing kids from smoking, Kelly said.
“You pass laws and nothing gets done,” Kelly said. “I do think there’s a parental responsibility here…You’ve got to educate these kids” on your own.