Nico-teens: Although fewer kids are smoking, many find it's hard to quit
Mike Marquardo was 10 when he smoked his first cigarette.
``When we were little, me and my friends would find cigarettes around the house,'' said the Malden 16-year-old. ``My New Year's resolution for two years now has been to quit smoking, but the cravings are just horrible.''
Melissa, 19, and Melissa Callahan, 21, say 'Everybody smokes.' Marquardo is not alone in his struggle. Every day, more than 5,000 U.S. teens try cigarettes, and about 2,000 go on to become regular smokers, according to a recent survey by the University of California at San Diego.
Massachusetts and 45 other states won a $246 billion settlement from the tobacco industry in 1998, after the states sued to recover tax dollars spent on caring for people with smoking-related illness. The states vowed to use that money to fund tobacco-prevention programs. But Massachusetts is one of only six states spending what's recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a report released Thursday by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association.
Are these programs working?
The report found that 34 percent of Massachusetts high school students smoke, which is significantly less than a few years ago.
Greg Connelly, of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said fewer students are smoking in high school and middle school. ``From 1996-1999, we saw smoking decline from 31 percent to 23 percent in seventh- to 12th-graders. Sixth-graders saw a 60 percent decline.''
Connelly credits the decline to state-sponsored anti-tobacco ads and education programs, taxes on tobacco products and media coverage of the harmful effects of tobacco use. The state spends $12 million a year on anti-tobacco promotions, he said. But most of the campaign targets kids in elementary and middle schools who have never smoked or just started smoking.
Experienced young smokers see another side of the state.
``Everybody smokes,'' said Melissa, 19, of Gloucester. ``It's a social thing.''
Melissa started smoking when she was 12. Her mother smoked only on the weekends, so she didn't notice when her daughter would sneak a cigarette.
``I would just take one at a time,'' she said. ``She never noticed they were missing.''
Could anti-tobacco ads inspire her to stop smoking?
``All ads make you want to quit,'' she said, remembering an ad that showed nasty fluid being scraped from a breathing tube. ``Those get to me. But I can't stop. I have a hard time not going to the store to buy them. (A cigarette's) the first thing I want in the morning and after a good meal.''
Kids with part-time jobs also face temptation.
``Everybody smokes at a workplace,'' said Melissa Callahan, 21, of Medford, who started smoking when she was 17. ``That's how you meet people. Every three hours you can get a break to go smoke.''
Like most young smokers, Callahan has tried to quit a few times. Thirty-one percent of young regular smokers have tried to quit smoking three or more times, according to a 1999 Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Marquardo said the TV ad that shows the Marlboro man hospitalized for cancer has made him think about quitting.
``All of a sudden it hits - the Marlboro man has cancer,'' said Marquardo. ``I thought that was good.''
Ads that evoke empathy by showing the negative long-term consequences of smoking on real people are the most effective, said Connelly.
``They're scary,'' said Melissa. ``They make you think, `This could be you.' ''
The teens we talked with said that even though the ads scare them, they don't know how to take the next step toward quitting.
About 40 percent of Massachusetts schools offer smoking-cessation programs, but kids' social environment makes quitting tough, said Connelly.
``Teens don't want to jeopardize relationships by telling their friends to stop smoking,'' he said.
And teens trying to quit also must change their routines.
``I could probably stop,'' said Tanya Getchell, 14, of Malden. ``But my friends smoke, and when they're around, I say, `Oh my God, I need one.' ''
Getchell's mother smoked until she had to have part of a vocal cord removed.
``I want to quit because of what happened to my mom,'' she said. But when asked how long she think she'll smoke, Getchell shook her head and said she didn't know.
Marquardo also hopes to quit soon.
``It tears you apart,'' said Marquardo. ``I'm trying to quit. If there were an overwhelming support on one side, that would be different, but I'm in the middle here. . . . My mother doesn't smoke, but a lot of my friends smoke and I hang with them all day.''
When Marquardo was a child, he used to rip up his father's cigarettes. Now, his father lives elsewhere, and Marquardo can't kick the habit.
``It's ironic, isn't it? Now, I don't know if I'm too far gone or not. At least I'm thinking about it.''