Commentary I wrote in 2003 on WhyQuit’s Freedom from Nicotine support board:
Kids Just Don’t Get It!
On the surface the above statement explains why kids are smoking at such an alarming rate. Here we have a product that is deadly, so deadly in fact it has been deemed the most preventable cause of premature death in the United States. Some, who don’t die from it, will often still be impaired or crippled from cigarettes. Not only is it deadly, it is expensive. Kids taking up smoking today are likely going to end up with a product that will end up costing them tens of thousands of dollars over their lifetime. But still kids take it up in record numbers today. What is the only logical explanation from this tragedy?
Again, it must be kids don’t get it. But don’t be too quick to interpret my meaning of this phrase. Yes there are some kids that no matter what you teach them will not listen to any amount of reason. But this is not the majority of kids taking up smoking. When I say kids don’t get it, I don’t mean kids lack the common sense to make a rational decision about smoking. What they don’t get is the real information in a manner that helps them understand the magnitude of the danger and the power of the addiction. Without this understanding, they are not equipped with the ammunition to overcome peer pressure, as well as tobacco promotion tactics by cigarette manufacturers.
When I try to offer programs to many local schools, free of charge mind you, I often get turned down for the reason that they can’t take time out of the busy education schedule required in schools today. Besides this, the school officials often feel kids already are getting the facts about smoking in health classes and DARE presentations. This is all well and good, except the message delivered in these programs is often presented quickly and truly skimming the surface of the depth of the nicotine addiction. I know when I do a school for the first time, the kids are amazed at the stories I relate about the dangers of smoking and the strength of addiction. More important than this though, it almost never fails that the health teacher comes up to me and tells me that they never understood the magnitude of the problem.
Recently, when I was speaking at a conference where representatives from many health organizations were coming to find out how to possibly help get funding from tobacco settlement monies. The DARE officers represented came up to me afterwards shocked about how dangerous smoking actually was. It seems the people being relied on to pass the message don’t understand the message themselves. And the people who should be responsible to educate the kids feel that the information is already out there for all to see because these people are already teaching it!
Kids can get it if it is given to them. It’s not only a financial limitation that this material is not disseminated. It is a lack of resolve and commitment by the public that allows this to happen. Parents should be demanding this information for kids. PTA groups should be screaming to increase the educational component of smoking prevention. But unfortunately, most of them don’t get it either. How often a parent reaction to their child smoking is, “Well at least they are not using drugs.” There is so many problems faced by kids today such as drugs, and alcohol, and violence that smoking seems minor in comparison.
But what parents and other adults to understand is that smoking is going to kill more kids than all the other problems combined. The kid has picked up an addiction that is likely going to kill them. What do I mean by likely? Well for ever thousand 20 year olds who smoke today and don’t quit, 6 of them will eventually die prematurely from being murdered (violence), 12 will eventually die prematurely from accidents, and 500 will die from smoking! But at least they are not using drugs. When a parent says this or thinks this, understand, they don’t get it either. They never did learn the full extent of the nicotine addiction when they were kids.
You made the comment that you would have given up your toe for the girl back when you were a kid. Think about it though, do you really think you would have given up your toe. If I was there with a chainsaw and made a promise that I would guarantee a date with the girl if you let me lop off your toe, do you think you would have taken it? Probably not, and this analogy is not as farfetched as it may sound on the surface. There are people who end up losing toes, fingers, feet, hands, legs, and arms from smoking. They are often given the choice to quit smoking or lost the limb, but they really don’t have a choice. They are addicts who lost control. Kids need to understand the extent of that control before they are smoking. Not that it just smells bad, not that it makes your teeth yellow, not that it is just “bad” for you. They think lots of things are bad for them. But tobacco is in a league by itself. When more kids get this information in its full non-diluted strength, more kids will have the ammunition to say no.
Peer pressure is a real phenomenon. Just telling kids not to give into it is not enough. Give them the reason not to give into it. Give them the full unadulterated message of the deadly and addictive nature of nicotine. Give them a reason to say no and they will likely do it. Lets make sure kids do get it and I think we will see a turn around in current trends.
Frightening Trends in Teenage Smoking
Smoking has been declining in adults for the past 30 years. In 1964, over half the men (52%) in the United States smoked. Thirty-four percent of women were smokers at that time. Today only 25% of adults smoke cigarettes, (28% men and 23% women). While the battle to combat smoking seems to have made major strides in the past three decades, the war on tobacco is far from over. For now the war on tobacco needs to be redirected at a new front. For kids are being targeted by tobacco advertisers and now kids are starting to smoke in record numbers. The statistics are frightening, and if steps are not taken to reverse the trends, the medical, economic and social costs to our children as well as to our country will be staggering. Consider the following:
- 82% of adults who ever smoked had their first cigarette by their 18th birthday. More than half became regular smokers by that time.
- Smoking among 8th and 10th graders has risen 50% since 1991.
- Nationwide, 71% of high school students have tried smoking.
- About 1/3 of high school students are current smokers (smoked at least one cigarette in the last 30 days).
- Although only 5% of daily smokers surveyed in high school said they would definitely be smoking five years later, close to 75% were smoking 7 to 9 years later.
- Each day, nearly 3000 American youngsters become regular smokers. Of these, 1,000 will die from early tobacco-related diseases.
- Of 1,000 20-year-olds who continue to smoke, 6 will die prematurely from homicide, 12 from car accidents, and 500 from smoking.
Kids are smoking more. Are they being taught and do they understand the long-term implications of smoking? Do they understand the relative health risks of smoking compared to other dangerous activities? Do they understand the addictive nature of nicotine? Do they realize that if they innocently experiment with tobacco and have no intention of smoking, that they just may get hooked and not be able to quit?
From the above statistics, it sure does not seem they know these facts. So what do kids know about smoking? We know that 30% of three-year-olds and 91% of six-year-olds can identify Joe Camel as a symbol of smoking and we know that kids are starting to smoke in record number. We know kids are effectively being targeted with a smoking message but it is not the message they need to hear. We must undo the influence of the multi-billion dollar advertising campaigns aimed at our youth. We must counter misinformation with facts. We need to relentlessly spread the message far and wide that cigarettes are deadly and nicotine is addictive.
Always remember that one way you can influence the people most significant in your life in regards to smoking is by example. Spread the unique perspective of your nicotine addiction and your triumph of cessation. For the smokers you know, spread the word that there is life after smoking. For ex-smokers, share your understanding of the potential of relapse. Most important, to kids you know share your experience of how you got addicted and how you now must constantly be on your guard to stay off. Most smokers wish they never started. Make kids aware of this from your personal perspective. Be aware of your position as a potential role model and – NEVER TAKE ANOTHER PUFF!
© Joel Spitzer 1997