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Child smokers light up the playground

Student Aimée Jakubowitz (left) with a non-smoking classmate

Swiss teenagers are being given permission to smoke at school, under a scheme aimed at making them face up to their tobacco addiction.

One school pioneering the “licence to smoke” scheme is the Morillon, a secondary school of some 250 pupils in the Swiss capital, Bern.

Under proposals drawn up by teachers and approved by the school’s administrative council, pupils are given permission to smoke in a designated area – known in the Morillon as the “smoking island” – provided their parents have signed and returned to the school a form giving their consent.

Teacher Michael Pauli says the scheme means teachers no longer have to prowl the corridors in search of illicit under-age smokers. “Teachers decided that they would not continue to try to hunt down smokers in the school,” Pauli told swissinfo.

“We thought it was better to have the smokers isolated in one place, rather than have them hide somewhere with friends who don’t smoke, which might lead to others getting involved,” he added.

Before teachers will issue a smoking licence, a pupil must provide both proof of parental consent and a doctor’s note confirming he or she needs a cigarette during the school day.

“This means that students have to face up to the fact that they are addicted and actually need to smoke,” says English teacher Christina Rüegger.

Smoking time

At precisely 10am, the school bell rings and students file out of class for the start of morning break. Most head straight for the recreational area, but a few take a different route towards the smoking island, a bench in a quiet and secluded corner of the school grounds.

Fifteen-year-old Aimeé Jakubowitz – who admits to smoking up to one and a half packets a day – is one of three pupils at the Morillon who have been given a licence to smoke during break times.

“I think it’s good, because I can go to smoke and I don’t feel that I have to hide,” she says.

Jakubowitz is not alone. According to recent statistics, 25 per cent of Swiss aged 15 or under are regular smokers, and the number is set to rise still further in the next decade.

Alternative approach

Peter Schertenleib, director of an outpatient clinic in Bern and an expert in tobacco addiction, says he does not support the scheme and would prefer to see smoking banned from school.

“I would change this policy and say, ‘you can smoke, but please not here. Here we have a healthy school, we promote sports, we live healthily. In other words, you can smoke, but do it outside school.'”

Schertenleib suggests the licence to smoke scheme is an attempt on the part of teachers to relinquish responsibility for the problem of teenage smoking.

“I find the whole idea very strange,” Schertenleib told swissinfo.

“They seem to want to provoke and show the parents that they are very much responsible for the behaviour of their children… What I would do is completely ban smoking from school,” he added.

Morillon teacher, Michael Pauli, says it is up to parents to decide whether their children should be allowed to smoke.

“As soon as we have students whose parents know they smoke, it doesn’t make sense for us as a school to try and go against their parents – they are the ones responsible for their children and we are only assistants,” Pauli says.

Smoke-free schools?

Beat Hess, director of the Federal Health Office’s alcohol and tobacco division, says he approves of the school’s initiative, but believes it is only a first step towards making all Swiss schools smoke-free.

“At first sight this scheme looks like a step backwards in the anti-smoking campaign,” Hess says.

“But you could also see it as an intermediary step towards a smoke-free school… since it means boundaries are created. So these so-called ‘smoking islands’ can be seen in a positive light, but there is no question that the ultimate aim must be to have smoke-free schools.”

Pauli contends that there is no possibility of ever guaranteeing a smoke-free school.

“To put it simply, school has to be close to life, and life is not perfect,” he says.

“I would rather have a very large, healthy area where children do not come into contact with cigarettes, than have a school with a shiny exterior but where inside you find people smoking here and there in secret,” he adds.

Teachers, doctors and government officials may be at odds over how to get the anti-smoking message across to young people, but all are agreed that a solution needs to be found to curb the increase in teenage smoking.

“Something definitely has to be done,” says Schertenleib, “because otherwise this will be a catastrophe within 20 or 30 years.”

by Ramsey Zarifeh

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR