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Schools want consistent anti-smoking message

In the classroom, Citrus teachers encourage students to live a smoke-free life. Yet just around the corner in the county's schools, teachers and other school employees are allowed to smoke during their breaks from work.

A school health advisory committee thinks that contradiction needs to end if students are ever going to get the message that smoking is deadly.

This week, the Drug-Free Schools/Comprehensive Health Advisory Council recommended that the School Board adopt a policy eliminating all tobacco use on school property at the start of the next school year.

"We are committed to the health education of the students of Citrus County and we believe that smoke-free schools and facilities will be healthier and cleaner environments in which to work and learn," wrote the council's recording secretary Shirley Westrate in a letter to School Board Chairwoman Ruthann Derrico.

The policy, which could come up for discussion as early as Tuesday, is supported by Superintendent Carl Austin.

"I think it's a good idea and I think they've hit the nail on the head," Austin said Friday. "I think we should be progressive about this. . . . It's well-documented, the problems caused by smoking. It's not questionable."

But some question does remain over whether the board can set a policy such as the one suggested.

"We have to check to see if it's an item that must be negotiated at the table," Austin said, referring the school system's annual contract negotiations with the teachers union, the Citrus County Education Association (CCEA).

Smoking areas were a hot topic during contract talks in 1990 when Lecanto Primary School principal Steve Guyler made his school smoke-free. His action prompted some teachers to complain because they were forced to go out in the parking lot or into their vehicles to smoke during their breaks.

Because Guyler's action amounted to a change in school working conditions, the CCEA finally won the chance to keep smoking areas and a committee was established to discuss those areas.

During negotiations late last summer and fall, school administration tried to get the teachers to agree to making the school smoke-free during the current school year. But the union did not accept that idea, and the smoking areas remained.

Union officials could not be reached Friday to comment on the latest recommendation.

The committee that suggested the move toward smoke-free schools consists of school, health care, Sheriff's Office and community representatives.

In letters to both Derrico and Austin, the advisory group notes that six other school districts and numerous private enterprises in Florida have made the decision to go smoke-free.

The letter also states that, in addition to the obvious benefits to students and other non-smoking employees, the move would also save an employer _ in this case the taxpayer _ money because of the health care costs associated with smoking-related illnesses.

And then there's the added educational benefit.

As Westrate notes, the schools offer a program known as the "Smoke-Free Class of 2000" as well as peer counseling programs that encourage students not to smoke and a variety of health information on the dangers of tobacco and nicotine addiction.

"At the same time that these educational programs are offered, however, smoking is allowed in school buildings and on school grounds," Westrate wrote.

The letter also states that 434,000 Americans die of smoking-related illnesses each year, 90 percent of adult smokers started smoking in their teens and each day, 3,000 new teens try their first cigarette.

The Legislature is also in the process of considering changes to the Florida Clean Indoor Air Act. One possible change would be to make all schools smoke-free.

"Students must learn that smoking is the chief cause of preventable death in America and that their healthy choice is for a smoke-free life," she wrote.