04/19/07 — Health officials ask schools to ban tobacco

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Health officials ask schools to ban tobacco

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on April 19, 2007 1:45 PM

The Wayne County Board of Health wants the county school system to consider a "100 percent tobacco-free school policy," board members said Wednesday.

Board member Efton Sager, who made the motion for a resolution, called it a request.

"We're not telling them what to do. We request that they consider adopting it," Sager said.

Wayne County is one of 31 school systems in the state that do not have a tobacco-free policy, said Mark Ezzell, director of Tobacco Free Schools, a division of the state Health and Wellness Trust Fund.

"Pitt, Lenoir, and Martin counties and Clinton city have done this for years," he said. "They haven't had a lot of problem with it."

The need for such a policy is real, Ezzell said. With student asthma rates at an all-time high, North Carolina students lose a cumulative one million hours of instructional time a year due to breathing-related sickness, he said.

Having such a policy prohibiting tobacco use of any kind on school grounds or during school events has already proven to be effective, Ezzell said.

"Schools with the Tobacco Free Schools policy in place three or more years have 40 percent fewer student smokers than other schools," he said.

Addressing the argument that eastern North Carolina is a tobacco belt and such a policy may draw opposition, Ezzell said he knows a lot of tobacco farmers and "I don't know of any tobacco farmers that really want that 15-year-old to smoke.

"If this helps keep kids off tobacco, then clearly it's a policy that has merit."

Enforcing such a policy doesn't have to be an obstacle, Ezzell said.

"It's not like anybody needs to be the tobacco police to make this work," he said. "Essentially you need to get people to comply if they know it exists."

Awareness and encouragement have proven to be effective. Give people enough advance notice and it can work, he said.

"If it passes in June, make it effective January 1 ... have about six months to publicize it," he said. "Get the community prepared for it. We provide services to help the school system do it.

"That drastically reduces the need to enforce it."

Getting the support of parents and the public, particularly during outdoor sporting events, was also a concern. But, Ezzell said, it can be handled through gentle reminders and making people aware of the policy.

"Communicate in advance, make sure the staff has been told by the superintendent and principals to comply, giving ongoing reminders" were just a few suggestions Ezzell tossed out.

"School officials often expect problems but they don't occur," he said, reminding them of the gradual changes made in restaurants and other public places. "We haven't been smoking on planes for 25 years."

The Wayne school board would make the final decision, Ezzell noted. His organization provides supplemental information and resources and would work closely with officials, even providing a template of the policy and suggestions for implementation.

"It shouldn't cost a school system a dime," he said.

Shirley Sims, chairman of the Board of Education, said she favors the idea.

"I have wanted this for some time and I don't think I'm the Lone Ranger," she said. "I think there are others who would like to see this, too."

The time is ripe for changes to be made, Ms. Sims said. Recently, the school system received an annual report from Safe Schools, reflecting the lack of a smoking policy.

"The only thing that prevented Wayne County schools from having a 100 percent was that we were not tobacco free," she said. "In order to get 100 percent on Safe Schools, we have got to stop the smoking."