Activists try to smoke out a bad habit among teens
Brian Gist, 16, has no plans to smoke. Ever. A junior at Robinson High School in Fairfax, Brian says two of his grandparents died from smoking-related illnesses. Their deaths cured him of any desire to ever pick up the habit.
Brian would like to convince other teens not to smoke, but he knows many do not care about health risks or that it is illegal for minors to buy
cigarettes. Despite the inundation of anti-smoking education programs starting in grade school, the health message gets lost when children pick up
the first smoke - usually in sixth or seventh grade.
"They'll never give you a straight answer as to why they smoke," says Brian, who is working on a high school marketing project that is aimed at persuading children from ages 11 to 15 not to start smoking.
"I will challenge them to see if they can go for a week without smoking," he says. "But I usually won't waste my time trying to convince people not to smoke if they have already made up their minds."
Watching a parent or grandparent smoke can sometimes influence teens such as Brian not to start smoking, but it also can send a subtle message
that smoking is OK.
Parents who smoke or whose family members smoke are in a delicate position: How can they deliver a believable message about the dangers of
nicotine addiction when beloved role models smoke?
Parents who smoke are in a unique position to exert influence, says Michael Popkin, a clinical psychologist at Georgia State University in
"They can argue that they know firsthand how difficult it is to stop once you start," he says. "Of course, you can put a lot more credibility
into this if you tell your children that you will quit smoking - and then do it."
Mr. Popkin is a spokesman for an anti-smoking education campaign called "Take 10," which says parents should take an activist role in persuading
children not to smoke. The campaign is sponsored by the Lorillard Tobacco Co. as part of the tobacco industry's efforts to curb teen smoking.
"We recommend that parents share their arguments with children about why it isn't safe to start smoking," he says. "Then parents need to
establish consequences. They need to make it clear to kids that smoking is a behavior that is not OK."
While Mr. Popkin advises parents to take a strong position against smoking, he also suggests some techniques for helping children deal with peer pressure and the desire to be "cool."
One idea is to help children practice what they might say when first offered a cigarette.
"We encourage parents to rehearse responses so children can say 'no' and not end up feeling like a [nerd]," he says. "For instance, they could say, 'I've got to save my money for a CD collection instead of buying a new building for the tobacco industry.' "
In families with smokers, the key is to address the issue rather than hiding it, Mr. Popkin says.
"Parents can have a tremendous influence on their kids, even if they don't realize it," he says. "When parents talk with their teens, it may not seem like the message is getting through, but it often is."
Educating children about the dangers of tobacco is not a recent trend.
Health groups have created dozens of programs outlining the dangers of lung disease and cancer associated with smoking. Unfortunately, three decades of anti-smoking education has done little to stop children from experimenting with tobacco products.
Ten percent of middle school students and 28 percent of high school students are regular smokers, according to a 1999 nationwide survey
sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Legacy Foundation. The foundation was established in 1998 as part of a legal settlement between the tobacco industry and 46 states suing the industry for medical damages from smoking illnesses.
The survey purports to be the first attempt to examine tobacco use among middle and high school students. All forms of tobacco use were
studied, including pipes, cigars, chewing tobacco and bidis - tiny, flavored cigarettes from India.
Middle school is where most children are tempted to light up for the first time, says Janette Luttrell, 19, a Robinson senior who smokes a pack or more in one day. "There is a lot of peer pressure. You want to feel more grown up - to seem older."
Why is cigarette smoking something that children think is sophisticated?
Adults smoke, and - in movies - cigarettes are more often associated with the strong, sophisticated character than a spineless idiot, Miss Luttrell says. A favorite movie star lighting up can have a powerful impact on impressionable youth.
Miss Luttrell says she started smoking in seventh grade in response to peer pressure. "My mom, dad and brother all smoked, so access to cigarettes
was easier," she says. "I've tried quitting several times, but I can't."
Lindsay Webster, 17, also a senior, agrees that peer pressure is strongest in sixth and seventh grades. "Most of my friends smoke. I've been offered cigarettes a lot," she says. But like Brian, Lindsay lost two grandparents to lung cancer and
emphysema, so she is a committed nonsmoker. Lindsay is director of the school's marketing program aimed at helping a Reston-based company sell a smoking-cessation product to teen-agers.
Surveying teen smokers
The product, called "Life Sign," is a computerized device about the size of a credit card that is designed to help people taper off their cigarette use. The device, which sells for $89.95, beeps to let the smoker know when it is OK to smoke. Gradually it quits beeping and ideally, the
person stops smoking. The idea is to break the habit and change the behavioral responses that trigger the desire for a cigarette.
The company decided three years ago to market the device to teens - and worked out a partnership with Robinson in which the students have learned
some real-world survey and marketing techniques.
Last year, the school won a national award from the Association of Marketing Students for a campaign in which students staged an anti-smoking
rally at the U.S. Capitol and tested whether local convenience stores were enforcing the ban on selling cigarettes to minors.
This year, the marketing students conducted an in-house survey on tobacco use at Robinson, which has 4,000 students in grades seven through 12. Some of the findings were surprising:
Eleven percent of the students had been regular smokers for three or more years.
Many of the smokers were active participants in extracurricular activities, such as sports (66 percent), clubs (31 percent), music (31 percent) and youth groups (26 percent).
Nearly 75 percent of the smokers had tried to quit at least once and failed.
"I don't want to quit," says Adrienne Keer, 18, a Robinson senior who says she started smoking in fifth grade. "It started out as a curiosity thing - you think you're cool. Now if I see a cigarette in a movie, I want to smoke."
School rules, of course, do not permit smoking in the building, but students say hardly anyone gets caught in the student bathrooms. "You walk
in the senior bathrooms, and it's full of smoke," Lindsay says. "It's awful."
Helping children decide
Robert Schwebel is not surprised that middle school is where many youngsters find it hardest to resist the pressure to take up smoking. This is why he recommends that parents take a proactive approach in preparing children to deal with peer pressure.
"This is not just something where parents should lie back and see what happens," says Mr. Schwebel, the author of "How to Help Your Kids Choose to
Be Tobacco-Free." Mr. Schwebel, a Tucson, Ariz.-based family psychologist who is a specialist in treating substance abuse, says parents should explain why people enjoy smoking - instead of just telling children not to do it because it isn't healthy.
"For many people, smoking is a way to structure their energy, and it can be a comforting ritual," he says. "Parents should explain to their children that people use tobacco because they get something out of it. It is a stimulant and some people find it relaxes them."
Having such a discussion increases a parent's credibility, Mr. Schwebel says. Then it is easier for parents to suggest ways for children to resist
the pressure to smoke.
"Children's attitudes and expectations about what tobacco will do to them are formed in early childhood," Mr. Schwebel says. "This is why
parents need to talk about the issue before children have access to tobacco products."