All of North Carolina's public schools will be tobacco-free by the end of this week, the culmination of a six-year effort by health advocates in the most tobacco-friendly of states.
Each of the state's 115 school systems will have a policy banning smoking and all other tobacco use – by anyone, at any time, anywhere on campus or at off-campus school events such as field trips and football games.
Most school systems, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, adopted the policy in the last few years. The final holdouts did so this month to comply with state law requiring action by Aug. 1, making North Carolina one of only a handful of states where all public schools will be tobacco-free.
“North Carolina, being a tobacco state, is a beacon on this subject,” said Joel Spivak of the Washington-based Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
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Advocates hope the bans will result in fewer students taking up smoking and in a healthier working environment for school employees.
The debate took place in each school system. In some cases, students organized anti-tobacco clubs and lobbied the local school board. Statewide television ads, funded by the N.C. Health and Wellness Trust Fund, raised the profile of the campaign.
The greatest challenges, organizers said, came in rural counties where tobacco is still a dominant crop.
“There was resistance based on the historic and economic connections to tobacco. We had to overcome that,” said Vandana Shah, executive director of the N.C. Health and Wellness Trust Fund, which receives part of North Carolina's share of the 1998 national tobacco settlement.
The N.C. Association of Educators, the state's largest group of teachers and other school employees, supported the bans.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg has been tobacco-free since 2003, though earlier policies restricting tobacco use date to 1990. About 85 school systems had adopted tobacco-free policies by July 2007 when Gov. Mike Easley signed a law requiring the rest to do so by Aug. 1, 2008.
Among the last school systems to put bans into effect have been those in Lincoln County and Mooresville, though each already had a policy restricting tobacco use.
Larry Wilson, vice chair of the Mooresville school board, said he's concerned about how well officials will be able to enforce the ban at events such as football games.
“I've been to other schools where they make an announcement – ‘We're tobacco-free' – and then you have someone smoking in front of you,” Wilson said. “That sends a bad message to the kids.”
Some state lawmakers have the same worries. Rep. Cary Allred, an Alamance County Republican, filed legislation this year that would have allowed schools to continue setting their own policies, but the legislation never made it out of committee.
The Alamance-Burlington School System was among the last to comply, and Allred said he heard complaints from constituents. “A lot of people in my community felt like it went too far,” he said.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg spokeswoman Carmen Bray said CMS relies on no-smoking signs and school resource officers who tell people to stop if caught smoking. She said a violation could result in a citation or even an arrest, though neither has ever happened.
The N.C. Health and Wellness Trust Fund provides signs at no cost to school systems and offers training for school officials. They say they're working on other ways to implement the bans.
Lt. Gov. Bev Perdue, chair of the trust fund and a frequent public face for its tobacco-free schools program, called the state's acceptance of increased tobacco regulation historic. And, she said, further regulations could soon follow.
“The ground is fertile,” Perdue said. “There is no longer any to-do or any concern about tobacco being the death knell for public officials in this state.”