|While money for antismoking education has
all but disappeared from the state budget, a court program in North Broward continues for
teens caught with tobacco.
Jessica Harbie, 12, faces Teen Tobacco Court Judge Louis Schiff.
JOE RIMKUS JR./HERALD STAFF
|Arms crossed, yawns barely
stifled, a group of somewhat surly teens sat in a Deerfield Beach courtroom watching a
series of hip ads about the perils of smoking.
The teens -- and one 12-year-old -- had been cited by police for possession of tobacco and
ordered to appear in court.
The ads, produced by the antismoking Truth campaign financed by the state, are part of
Broward County Judge Louis Schiff's Teen Tobacco Court.
While state budget cuts last year gutted the Truth advertising program, prompting the
American Lung Association to give Florida an F on its 2003 report card for tobacco
prevention and control spending, the special court and related class for young people
continues with virtually no monetary help from the state.
It's no regular court. Every other Thursday afternoon, Teen Tobacco Court gathers youths
cited for tobacco possession on a single docket instead of throwing them in with adults
who might be facing criminal charges.
''I think it's important that the kids be treated
individually,'' Schiff said. ``The kids deserve their own court.''
Teens can plead not guilty and go to trial or plead guilty or no contest, pay a total of
$75 out of their own pockets and go to a Saturday class called Quitters Are Winners, which
emphasizes the danger of tobacco use. Those who don't show up for court or fail to
complete the requirements, will have their licenses suspended.
Though many teens arrived with scowls on Thursday, some were smiling by the time they
Schiff takes a few minutes with each teen, asking about their grades and extracurricular
activities. He asks if they still smoke and why.
At 12, Sawgrass Springs Middle School student Jessica Harbie was the youngest person
appearing before Schiff on Thursday.
Dressed in a black shirt with ''Grumpy'' printed on the back, Jessica, a violinist in her
school orchestra, told Schiff that she was still smoking.
''We're going to try to get you to stop,'' he said. As she walked away, he urged:
``Practice your violin.''
Later, Jessica said she doesn't blame anyone else for her smoking habit.
''It is my fault that I started,'' she said.
Her mother, Dawn Harbie, was glad to hear that Jessica was the one who would be expected
to pay the $75, which includes $25 for the class.
''Let the guilty parties pay,'' she said.
STARTED IN 1997
Schiff started the program in 1997 and said a few thousand teens have gone through it
since, about 500 last year.
A 1999 study prepared by Florida International University indicated that just over 57
percent of students who went through Schiff's program and a similar one in Plantation
smoked less or ceased smoking altogether after appearing in court.
The numbers of teens going through the program has decreased in recent years, a decline
the judge attributes to Florida's efforts to educate young people.
But the Legislature's cut -- from $37.5 million to $1 million -- eviscerated the Health
Department's Division of Health Awareness and Youth Tobacco Use program.
Surveys by the department showed that between 1998 and 2002, smoking dropped by half among
middle schoolers and by 35 percent in high school students.
While the cuts will not shut down the Teen Tobacco Court program, it may have an effect in
the future, Schiff said.
''If we don't have the money for education in this area, we're going to see the results of
it several years down the road,'' he said. ``I'm going to still do it, but I'm fearful
that the number of cases may rise if the money is not there to educate our students.''