Although education about the dangers of commercial tobacco use has increased in recent decades, youth smoking continues to be a grave problem in the United States. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly one quarter of American high school students – 18.7 percent of females and 21.3 percent of males – are current cigarette smokers. Each day in the United States, approximately 4,000 young people between the ages of 12 and 17 begin smoking cigarettes, and an estimated 1,140 young people become daily smokers. If these trends continue, more than six million children may ultimately die prematurely from smoking-related disease.

Schools are in a unique position to reduce the problem of smoking and tobacco use by children. Children spend almost a third of their waking hours at school. Much of the peer pressure that children feel to try smoking 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.

Emerging research suggests that school policies prohibiting tobacco use, when consistently enforced, are an essential part of lowering teen smoking 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 use, a growing number of state departments of education and local school districts are adopting comprehensive tobacco-free policies, which 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 tobacco use.

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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.


Select Legislation

Federal Legislation

The Pro-Children Act of 1994 prohibits smoking in federally funded facilities that provide education, library, day care, health care and early childhood development (including WIC and Head Start) services to children. The Pro-Children Act requirements were reauthorized by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

State Legislation

Prohibiting or restricting smoking in schools is typically addressed in clean indoor air laws enacted by states, counties, and municipalities, or in regulations promulgated by state or local boards of education or school districts pursuant to legislative delegation. Most state clean indoor air laws prohibit smoking within the enclosed areas of public schools, but these laws vary widely as to whether they prohibit smoking or tobacco use (1) in private schools; (2) on school grounds, parking lots, and playing fields and in school vehicles; and (3) at off-campus school functions.

Some states have passed legislation modeled after the federal Pro-Children Act. For example, New York passed the New York State Pro-Kids Act, which applied to both public and private elementary and secondary schools. The law prohibits tobacco use in school buildings, on school grounds, and in any vehicle used by a school.


Select Research

  • T.A. Barnett, et. al., The Influence of School Smoking Policies on Student Tobacco Use, 161 Archives of Pediatric Adolescent Medicine 842 (2007).
  • M.A. Wakefield and F. Chaloupka, et. al., Effect of Restrictions on Smoking at Home, at School, and in Public Places on Teenage Smoking: Cross Sectional Study, 321 British Medical Journal 333 (2000).


Select Resources


Older resources can be found in our Schools Resource archive.