Teen smokers, it's tough but you can quit
AT THE age of 13, Tiger puffed his way through 40 sticks of cigarettes a day.
His older friends had introduced him to smoking when he was 12 and in Primary 6, and he became 'addicted after the first puff'.
Now 16, he is trying hard to quit.
More youngsters are smoking these days, despite increased tobacco taxes and measures such as the removal of small packs of cigarettes from retailers' shelves.
Just look at these figures from the Health Sciences Authority (HSA):
Last year, 5,979 youths were nabbed for underage smoking, compared to 3,349 in 2002. The figures were up sharply from 1,608 in 2001 and 1,455 in 2000.
More girls are also picking up the habit. The HSA said that 25.5 per cent of the underage smokers caught last year were girls, up from 22.9 per cent in 2002 and 21.5 per cent in 2001.
Teens are buying cheaper brands of cigarettes, which may have higher tobacco content than premium brands.
Most of them do not seem to have problems getting their packs, even though it is against the law for people aged under 18 to buy cigarettes or tobacco products.
But while picking up the habit is easy for some, teens who want to quit find it tough going, although not impossible.
Tiger is now down to seven sticks a day, and plans to be smoke-free by next year.
'When I wake up, I need to smoke,' he said. 'If I don't smoke, I get a headache.'
He finally decided to quit after he was warned by the police last year. He regrets picking up the habit and does not want to be dependent on nicotine.
So he went to the Children-At-Risk-Empowerment (Care) Association for counselling and received advice from his discipline master in school as well.
Usually, teens pick up smoking because of pressure from their friends or school stress, said those interviewed.
Violet (not her real name), a 17-year-old who works as a part-time sales promoter, used to smoke three or four sticks a day.
She managed to kick the habit a year after picking it up, but went back to it within the year because of 'work and family stress'.
Mr John Tan, Care's development director, said relapses are common.
'There are many triggers for this. For example, when some teens go through a tough time, like a nasty break-up or a loved one dies, they resort to smoking as a crutch,' he said.
'Only by solving their problem can they get rid of that crutch.'
He advises teens to look for a friend they can count on, and do other things such as exercise or drink juice to take their minds off smoking.
He also gives them cinnamon sticks to hold and suck in place of cigarettes.
At the Child Guidance Clinic, teens trying to kick the habit are informed about the dangers of smoking and counselled about withdrawal symptoms so that they can learn how to handle them, said Ms Geraldine Wong, a medical social worker there.
The results show that quitting is not impossible.
About 20 per cent of the teens quit smoking, she said, and the rest reduce their smoking by about 50 per cent.
Addicts usually go through 'a period of struggle to cope with their smoking problem', said Ms Wong.
But there is light at the end of the tunnel. She said: 'They quit and relapse many times before they finally succeed in staying smoke-free.'
Mr Tan also has some advice for parents - stop nagging. 'They don't want to be given a lecture, and if you nag, they won't listen to you,' he said.
'But if you listen to their reasons, then you can help deconstruct their reasons for smoking.'