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Youths lighting up in large numbers


Editor's Note: This is one in an ongoing series of stories, My Generation, focused especially on our young readers.

Holly Johnson is one of the lucky ones. The Fitchburg State College student said she tried smoking during the summer between high school and college. "It was the thing to do," she said. "It was fashionable." The 21-year-old said she quit before cigarettes took hold of her life, but, she added, smoking is still prevalent "all over campus." Students smoke for social reasons, Johnson said as she stood outside Searstown Mall on Wednesday. More than a decade after the state launched its tobacco prevention agency -- the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program -- young people are still lighting up, according to statistics. A state survey in 2002 indicates more than 24 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds smoked, while only 18.9 percent of the total population smoked. "That group has the highest smoking rate for adults," said Eileen Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program. Sullivan, the acting policy and training director for the agency, said the recent settlements between the tobacco companies and the attorney general prevented some marketing to teenagers. The result, she said, is "a lot of emphasis in promoting cigarettes in bars, some targeted to people in their early 20s." Invincible youth Martha Favre, director of health services at FSC, said the college doesn't have cessation programs because "we've run them in the past and had a very low response." College-age people often feel "invincible" like teenagers, Favre said. "Some of it, too, is the stress of course work, and trying to stop an addictive habit adds to that stress," she said. "It's difficult, too, looking at the long-term effect. They still operate under a sense of feeling invincible. It's all very much a part of their level of maturation. It's a very addictive drug, in fairness to them. It's very tough to quit." High school students polled by the state in 1999 showed 30 percent smoked. The percentage dropped to 26 percent in 2001 and 21 percent in 2003. "The simple answer is I don't think (more youths are smoking)," said Sullivan. "(But) it was going down at a very fast rate, and I don't think it's going down as fast." Sarah Koutrakos, 24, of Fitchburg, said she had her first cigarette when she was 13 years old. It tasted horrible, but she continued smoking and developed a habit at about 15 years old. Koutrakos, who plans to quit eventually, knew smoking was bad for her. But she didn't think of the long-term effects. "Who does?" she said. "At 15 years old, in general, you think you're invincible. You don't think that far ahead." Koutrakos' parents smoked and so did many other teens she knew. "It sounds cheap, but it was an 'everybody else is doing it' thing," she said. "To piss off my parents. They were both smokers, so it was 'do as I say, not as I do.'" Haley Rosario, 22, of Fitchburg said health risks didn't deter her from lighting up eight years ago. "I thought it was cool and who cares," she said. A girl thing? Sullivan said dieting and fear of gaining weight is part of why some young women are hesitant to quit. She said national statistics indicate more men are smokers, but she believes that is because so many older men smoke. Sullivan described smoking as a "coping mechanism" for some people. "Young women have a lot of other stressors in their life," Sullivan said. Johnson said the majority of smokers at the FSC campus seem to be female. "(Young women) don't want to eat," she said in explanation. Rosario said it isn't weight gain that makes her hesitant to quit, it's the feeling of being deprived of something. "I think about (quitting) a lot, but I don't actually do it," she said. "Like when I'm driving, I feel like I want it. And socially." Melanie Gagne, 22, of Leominster said she started smoking four years ago because it was "cool," a "teenage kind of thing." "I got addicted real quick, let me tell you," she said. Some youth advocates are afraid the loss of smoking prevention programs will lead to more young people smoking. Migdalia "Miggie" Velez, coordinator of youth and family services in Leominster, said funding losses forced the Spanish-American Center in Leominster to cut the prevention program about a year ago. Some middle- and high-school students pick up the habit because of peer pressure, because it's a fashionable habit or because they are curious, she said. "If there are role models in the home -- not to blame the parents -- but if the parents smoke and they leave cigarettes around, (children and teenagers) might start out of curiosity," she said. The Spanish-American Center tries to educate young people about the dangers of smoking, but Velez said it's not the same as having a complete program. "Not having these programs is going to put a lot of kids in jeopardy," Velez said. "There are kids we know that are 10 and smoking already." Several teenagers interviewed by the Sentinel & Enterprise Wednesday said they started smoking at 10, 11 or 12 years old. Sullivan said although teenagers deny it, peer pressure seems to play a part in smoking, because many smokers have smokers for friends. "There's a lot of reasons why young people start smoking; it's a way to rebel, it makes them more of an adult," she said. Contact Lisa Guerriero with other My Generation story ideas at (978) 534-4927 or (978) 537-5868 or e-mail her at .

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