Prohibiting Minors from Possessing Tobacco: Comparison of Strategies from Eight Municipalities with Policy Recommendations Based on Empirical Observation
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Teen smoking has become a top priority for national health officials as youth smoking rates have continued to rise. In our ongoing observation of local and national tobacco policymaking, we have found that many state and local jurisdictions are attempting to deny minors access to tobacco by restricting its sale and prohibiting its possession by minors. While some see this as an effective deterrent to under-age smoking, others have argued that penalizing possession will not reduce youth smoking prevalence rates, that it is unfair, and that it will lead to unfavorable consequences.
Tobacco and substance abuse researchers have attempted to link these types of policy interventions to reductions in availability and smoking prevalence rates. Our project will augment these studies by providing policymakers with detailed descriptions of events between policy and response. We will observe and analyze what actually happens when anti-possession laws are enacted and enforcement mechanisms put into place by considering how these policies are perceived and interpreted by the enforcers and by teens. For instance, advocates of strong access and possession ordinances argue that these laws send an important societal message to teens. The meaning of this message, however, can only be considered in light of the conflicting messages received by adolescents (this is especially important in light of research showing that kids use cigarettes to develop rebellious and alternative self-images).
We have framed this study in the context of a body of theory, broadly known as sociolegal studies, which seeks to explain how law becomes operational in the lives of those who are likely to be affected, and the way that "law on the books" becomes used and understood in particular local contexts. Collectively, sociolegal scholars consider the ways order is maintained, governmental functions carried out, and private behavior regulated, often without active participation of law enforcement officials or attorneys. The effects of legal pronouncements are conditioned by the interpretations of the people among whom law is supposed to be made effective, which in our case includes law enforcement officers, school officials, and young people. Filling the synapse between policy stimulus and social outcome, our research will examine the landscape of efforts to deny minors access to tobacco products in all its social complexity.
To explore the relationship between youth perceptions about tobacco access and possession laws and subsequent policy outcomes, and to uncover the "situated meaning" within which implementation takes place, we will use a qualitative methodology of intensive observation and interpretive research. To collect data, we will employ unstructured interviewing, participation observation, and documentary analysis, and we will also utilize other types of quantitative data available to us. Our primary methodological goal is to examine and explicate the implicit assumptions of those who implement and enforce anti-possession laws (police, policy administrators, teachers) and the youths themselves. We will conduct case studies from eight communities in the greater New England area purposefully selected according to the types of policy adopted and levels of community organization.
The results of our study will aid policymakers and scholars alike by providing a detailed picture of how policy initiatives are implemented, and by carefully examining how acts of implementation lead to specific consequences in particular communities. The research reports produced by this study will enable policy professionals and tobacco control advocates to fashion programs best suited to their particular policy goals in ways that are consistent with the values of the communities within which they operate.