Schools Test Students for Cigarettes

Wednesday, October 4, 2000 By Adrienne Mand

As the new school year gets underway, kids across the country have a new test to worry about passing – their nicotine screening.

AP/Wide World

Sept. 11: A 15-year-old girl smokes a cigarette during
lunch break in front of her high school in Brookline, Mass.

High schools and middle schools in several states have added nicotine to the list of substances that students are tested for in order to participate in extracurricular activities.

Administrators say the testing helps protect students’ health and keeps them from even trying cigarettes, but critics contend schools are going too far, and violating children’s rights.

The current debate is centered in Hoover, Ala., where Ron Swann used to be known as athletic director at Hoover High School.

"They call me the drug czar now," he said. The school recently became the first in the state to include mandatory, random testing for nicotine and other drugs
among its athletes.


  • More than 4 million U.S. children under the age of 18 smoke cigarettes.
  • More than 1 million young people begin smoking each year.
  • In 1999, more than a third (34.8 percent) of U.S. high school students
    reported smoking cigarettes in the past month.
  • Early adolescence (6th through 10th grade) is the period when young people
    are most likely to first try smoking.
  • Implementing preventative programs in school could postpone or prevent
    smoking onset in 20 percent to 40 percent of U.S. adolescents.
  • In 1997, smokers aged 12 to 17 smoked approximately 924 million packs of
  • In a 1999 study, 72 percent of eighth graders and 88 percent of 10th
    graders said they can get cigarettes "fairly easily" or "very easily."

Source: Center for Disease Control’s Office on Smoking and Health

"It became evident that our community wanted us to include tobacco in the
testing," Swann said, explaining that many parents and school administrators
felt nicotine, the chief active principle in tobacco, paved the way to the use
of other drugs. Now, about 1,600 kids in seventh grade through high school will
be randomly sampled with urine tests starting this month.

The measure is meant to prevent smoking, not punish those who have picked up the
habit, he said. For the first nicotine offense, the student’s parents are
called. The next time, they must attend a tobacco education class. For the third
strike, they’re suspended from 25 percent of their group’s games or activities.

"We’re not trying to catch kids or get kids in trouble," he said. "The reason is
to stop (smoking) or to not do it if they’re tempted."

That philosophy has been applied in other schools as well.

"It’s effective, and I think our kids need this as a reason not to do it," said
James Peck, superintendent of Shelbyville Central Schools in Indiana. The
district instituted the "whiz quiz" three years ago at the high school and last
year at its middle school, where nicotine is included.

Source: CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey

About one third of U.S. teens continue to smoke.

But not everyone is pleased with the increasing trend of testing students for
nicotine. David Borden, executive director of the Drug Reform Coordination
Network, said testing for other drugs has not proven to be effective, and he
doubts it will work for smoking. But he ‘s also concerned about the students’
privacy, especially if they show no signs of a drug habit.

"To what lengths do we go to (monitor) our young people and force them to
conform to our ideals?" he said. "And shouldn’t a lot of this be left at the
discretion of the parents? Shouldn’t we be strengthening parental
responsibilities rather than usurping them?"

Not all health professionals are sold, either.

"People are walking around with this false sense of security that their kid is
not using, and they may be using drugs," said Dr. Peter Rogers of the division
of adolescent medicine at Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

Rogers – who serves on the committee on substance abuse at the American Academy
of Pediatrics, which opposes testing – said the tests are not reliable. For
example, certain cold medicines can show up as a positive result for
amphetamines, while others drugs, like ecstasy, do not show up. And he reports
that patients who have recovered from addiction say school testing would not
have stopped their drug use.

AP/Wide World

Oct. 1, 1996: Nikki Brown, 15, takes a cigarette break outside Findlay (Ohio)
High School.

"There’s so many different reasons why kids use, and most kids are going to
experiment with drugs and alcohol. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right, but
they’re going to do it," he said. "Something we’ve struggled with for a long
time is what is a deterrent. I think a close family is the number one deterrent.
I think the best thing we can do for our kids is have a good marriage."

The practice has met with legal challenges as well, and so far the results have
been split. In May, a federal appeals court upheld the right of a Mishawaka,
Ind., school district to randomly test students who participate in
extracurricular activities.
Attorneys had argued that the testing violated students’ 4th Amendment right
against unreasonable searches and seizures.

But the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that the Northwestern School Corporation
did not have the right to randomly test students. The case is currently under
appeal, and Peck said the Shelbyville schools and others are joining the fight
to allow testing.

Regardless of the outcome, it seems that testing is here to stay.

"It’s unfortunate that society has gone in a way that makes organizations feel
that they have to do this," said Terry Nance, athletic director at the London
City Schools in Ohio. "Most of the comments we’ve had have been very

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  • "Es ist schwieriger, eine vorgefaßte Meinung zu zertrümmern als ein Atom."
    (Het is moeilijker een vooroordeel aan flarden te schieten dan een atoom.)
    Albert Einstein

  • "Als je alles zou laten dat slecht is voor je gezondheid, dan ging je kapot"
    Anonieme arts

  • "The effects of other people smoking in my presence is so small it doesn't worry me."
    Sir Richard Doll, 2001

  • "Een leugen wordt de waarheid als hij maar vaak genoeg wordt herhaald"
    Joseph Goebbels, Minister van Propaganda, Nazi Duitsland

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    Mahatma Gandhi

  • "There''s no such thing as perfect air. If there was, God wouldn''t have put bristles in our noses"
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  • "Better a smoking freedom than a non-smoking tyranny"
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  • I've alllllllways said that asking smokers "do you want to quit?" and reporting the results of that question, as is, is horribly misleading. It's a TWO part question. After asking if one wants to quit it must be followed up with "Why?" Ask why and the majority of the answers will be "because I'm supposed to" (victims of guilt and propaganda), not "because I want to."
    Audrey Silk, NYCCLASH