Court's aim is to extinguish teen smoking
Broward County Judge Louis Schiff

Posted on Sun, Jan. 11, 2004
Miami Herald

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.
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Jessica Harbie, 12, faces Teen Tobacco Court Judge Louis Schiff.
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 left.


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.


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.''

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Updated 01/19/2004