Although education about the dangers of commercial tobacco use has increased in recent decades, youth tobacco use continues to be a grave problem in the United States. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 17.5 percent of high school females and 21.5 percent of high school males were using tobacco products in 2017, which includes e-cigarettes. In fact, e-cigarettes are being used by teens more than other forms of tobacco products. Far from the healthy alternative that some have made them out to be, e-cigarettes are a significant health risk to young people. On December 18, 2018, the Surgeon General declared that e-cigarette use among youth is an epidemic, and must be treated as such. The nicotine addiction and other associated health risks caused by e-cigarettes is a growing problem. “The surge in e-cigarette use among our nation’s youth has been fueled by newer cartridge-based devices that have become increasingly popular,” the Surgeon General said.

Schools are in a unique position to reduce the problem of tobacco use by children. Youth spend almost a third of their waking hours at school. Much of the peer pressure that youth feel to experiment with tobacco products occurs within the school setting. The peak years for first trying cigarettes appears to be in the sixth and seventh grades, a period when adolescents are particularly susceptible to pressures from their peers. Research indicates that most adult smokers start smoking cigarettes regularly before they graduate from high school.

Research suggests that school policies prohibiting tobacco product use, when consistently enforced, are an essential part of lowering teen tobacco use rates. While smoking is prohibited within school buildings under the clean indoor air laws of most states, local school policies vary as to whether all tobacco use, or just smoking, is prohibited on school property; whether tobacco use is also prohibited in outdoor areas on school grounds; and whether tobacco use is prohibited at off-campus school functions. To combat the problem of youth tobacco product use, a growing number of state departments of education and local school districts are adopting comprehensive tobacco-free policies. These policies ban tobacco products on school property, including both indoor and outdoor areas, as well as school functions, and schools are effectively educating students and staff about the dangers of all types of tobacco products.


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High School Students at School

Commercial Tobacco-Free K-12 School Model Policy

Comprehensive model commercial tobacco-free policy that school districts and K-12 schools can adapt.

High School Students in Class

Commercial Tobacco-Free K-12 School Model Policy: Questions & Answers

Comprehensive model commercial tobacco-free policy for school districts and K-12 schools, with a detailed analysis, in question/answer format, of the reasoning behind each policy provision.

High School Students in the Hall

Student Commercial Tobacco Use in Schools Alternative Measures (2019)

Information about the effectiveness of measures other than suspension and expulsion in addressing student tobacco use as part of a school’s Commercial Tobacco-Free Policy.

Juul e-cigarette

JUUL and the Guinea Pig Generation: Public Health Concerns about Use by Young People (2018)

Information resource about JUUL e-cigarettes, their rise in popularity among youth and young adults, and the concerns public health and tobacco control professionals have about these products.


Legal Issues


Preemption refers to the ability of a higher level of government to prevent or prohibit certain actions at a lower level of government. Federal law does not preempt the enactment of state or local policies prohibiting tobacco use in schools. Nevertheless, some state laws that prohibit smoking in educational facilities may preempt local laws on the subject.

  • Federal Law – The Pro-Children Act of 1994 provides that state laws cannot allow smoking within educational facilities that receive federal funding. The Pro-Children Act, specifically 20 U.S.C. § 6084, expressly states that it is not intended to preempt any provision of a law of a state or a political subdivision of a state that is more restrictive.
  • State Law – The clean indoor air laws of some states provide that smoking is prohibited only within school buildings and more stringent local laws prohibiting tobacco use on school grounds are preempted. For example, Connecticut law bans smoking “within a school building while school is in session or student activities are being conducted” and expressly “preempt[s] the provisions of any municipal law or ordinance relative to smoking.”

Fourth Amendment

Students have sued schools on Fourth Amendment grounds for searching their persons or lockers to confiscate tobacco in enforcement of tobacco-free school policies. Courts have generally upheld such searches by school officials, as long they are justified by reasonable suspicion that a school policy or law is being violated.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects citizens from unreasonable government searches and seizures of their persons or property. In New Jersey v. T.L.O, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Fourth Amendment applies to student searches conducted by public school officials. The Court also held, though, that searches of students are not subject to the warrant requirement, need not be supported by probable cause, and are instead governed by a reasonableness standard. Under this reasonableness test, school officials may search a student so long as they have reasonable grounds to suspect that a search will yield evidence of a violation of the law or school rules. In T.L.O., the Court upheld as reasonable the search of a student's purse to determine whether she possessed cigarettes in violation of school policy.


External Resources