Underage smokers in Broward County, Fla., now must defend themselves in court--a one-of-a-kind legal system devised to quash teens' desire for tobacco.

A study in the journal Adolescent & Family Health reports that nearly half of all teens cited to appear in the county's special teen tobacco court for smoking say they are smoking less or stopping altogether as a result.

Florida law makes it a noncriminal offense for those under age 18 to possess or buy tobacco products. In Broward County, teens caught smoking, possessing or buying tobacco products can be cited and must appear in one of two county courts that only hear cases of minors cited for tobacco possession--the only two of their kind in the country.

Teen-age offenders must appear with their parent or guardian before a judge in the court, as well as watch a video on the health effects of tobacco use. The judge also orders either a $25 fine or a day of community service picking up cigarette butts around public buildings, and can require offenders to attend a tobacco education course.

Teens who don't follow through with the steps the judge assigns may lose their drivers' licenses.

In research to find out if the court process deters teen smoking, Lilly Langer, PhD, of Florida International University, and George Warheit, PhD, of the University of Miami, surveyed 402 offenders ages 12 to 17 and their parent or guardian at the time of their tobacco court appearance, and 210 offenders from the original group two months after the court appearance.

At the court appearance, 28.4 percent of the teens reported using less tobacco than they did before the police citation and 15.5 percent noted they had not used tobacco at all since being cited. Two months later, 29.3 percent of the sample reported less tobacco use following their court appearance and 27.8 percent said they had not used tobacco since.

"The most surprising finding was the effectiveness of the citation process," says Langer. "That experience alone appeared to be an amazing deterrent."

Langer and Warheit also found that, at the time of the court appearance, a significantly larger percentage of younger smokers reported less or no use after the citation than did older teens.

"It seems that the younger teen-agers find the citation experience a scary one," suggests Langer, noting that maybe it's an appropriate time to scare them. "The literature shows that when young people start smoking as adolescents, they are more likely to become lifetime smokers than those who begin smoking later in life."

The teen court is part of the $40 million Florida Tobacco Pilot Program, which aims to reduce teen smoking by changing attitudes about tobacco among youth. The program was established in 1998 with funds from the state's $11.3 billion tobacco settlement.

Langer and Warheit will submit a second paper for publication from the teen court study on parents' knowledge and concerns about teen smoking later this year.