Dean Pederson, Payson Unified School District health specialist, says he's just a foot soldier in the war against tobacco.
But his efforts, coupled with work from the Payson Police Department, student groups and community interest, have gone a long way toward steering students away from tobacco. He said discipline referrals for students caught smoking have dropped by half in the last year.
The latest effort to stem student tobacco use is making vendors wary as well.
Students in Pederson's peer counseling program at Payson High School helped with a tobacco "sting" last week aimed at catching businesses that sell tobacco to minors. The operation Wednesday night nailed four of the town's 13 businesses that sell cigarettes and chewing tobacco.
Two 16-year-old students and two 17-year-olds volunteered to try to buy tobacco products from cashiers at the 13 stores. One of the four businesses that sold to the minors was a second-time offender.
This is the latest in a series of stings that began last fall in an effort to curtail the access minors have to tobacco.
Retailers caught in the busts are given a warning for the first offense. On the second, the cashier receives a $100 ticket for furnishing tobacco products to a minor and on the third offense, the charge jumps to supplying tobacco products to a minor, with a fine of $300.
Pederson blamed the fact that more than a third of all Payson tobacco retailers sold the products to minors on simple math error.
"Two of the businesses where we wrote tickets said they do train their cashiers in what to do, but they just can't add or they don't read the identification card right," Pederson said.
Payson Police Officer David Blalock, who is assigned to the Payson school campuses, said the danger of school-age tobacco use is that it can be a slippery slope to other, more dangerous drugs.
"There's a direct correlation between cigarette smokers and marijuana smokers," he said. "And marijuana is a gateway drug that opens doors to everything else. People don't just start doing heroin or LSD."
Pederson said while trying to catch businesses that sell tobacco to minors isn't his favorite part of the tobacco awareness program, it is one of the most effective.
He said teaching the dangers of risky decision-making is an absolute necessity.
"It's a crime on our kids not to educate them," he said. "I hear people from the community all the time say, 'The thing I regret about smoking is I can't even play with my grandkids. I can't even get down on the floor with them because my emphysema is so bad.'"
Money aids effort
Pederson said the natural trend against tobacco use is paying off for his students.
"There really is a lot of money out there for education against tobacco use right now," he said. "There's a wave of money, community support and volunteerism. We want to ride the wave as long as possible because we don't know how long it will last."
Pederson and Blalock agreed that many of the kids they're trying to reach are affected by more than bad breath and tobacco-stained fingertips.
Many of the kids come from at-risk homes with little family support.
"They're good kids, but a lot of them just don't get a fair shake," Pederson said. "They start making bad decisions early."
Early, he said, often means students start using tobacco in the sixth or seventh grade.