Imagine being 18, a college freshman and addicted to smoking nicotine. How much heart and courage would it take to allow your picture and message to be broadcast across the Internet in an effort to educate youth to the truth about smoking?
"I'm hooked," proclaims Rachel, an 18-year-old from Nashville, Tennessee. "My clothes stink and it sticks to you," says Katie, another 18-year-old who started at 17 in hopes that the stink of her friends smoking wouldn't bother her as much.
Ten College of Charleston smokers are standing tall as they reach out in an attempt to help the world's teens and tweens avoid their fate - life as nicotine's slave. Their stories are featured on the youth smoking prevention pages of WhyQuit.com. According to Google ratings, WhyQuit is the Internet's leading cold turkey quitting forum. According to the American Cancer Society, cold turkey is the quitting method that was used by 91% of all long-term successful quitters.
"I can't run and I can't breath," says Iris, a 20 year-old who started smoking in Paris at 17 to try and look cool like her smoking friends. "I smell like smoke and it's gross," says Kelly, an 18-year-old from Atlanta.
"Don't start. I've tried quitting four times and I can't," says Reggie, a 19 year-old from Columbia, S.C. "It's not worth the buzz," says Ian, age 18 from Mount Pleasant, SC.
"They may be addicted to smoking nicotine but they're a credit to mankind," says John R. Polito, WhyQuit's editor. "We failed to protect them and we now watch as they try and protect the next generation."
The U.S. is one of the few developed nations on earth that does not require any addiction warning label on tobacco products. Canada's required label reads, "Warning, cigarettes are highly addictive - studies have shown that tobacco can be harder to quit than heroin or cocaine."
These youth are doing what millions of dollars in tobacco industry campaign contributions appear to have convinced politicians and the agencies they control not to do, to tell youth the truth about tobacco.
"Last year the tobacco industry spent $14 billion in an attempt to brainwash students into believing that adult smokers smoke for flavor, pleasure, adventure or to make new friends," says Polito. "Their ads are nothing short of fraud when almost all daily smokers smoke because they must, because they are chemically dependent under DSM-IV standards."
DSM stands for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders . It is published by the American Psychiatric Association and is the main diagnostic reference of mental health professionals in the United States.
"Peer to peer is the way to go," says College of Charleston Health Educator Laura Lindroth. "They don't want to hear it from me but from each other. We need to connect with students before they arrive at college already hooked. We're proud of these ten students. They're reaching out and trying to make a difference."
Joel Spitzer, Education Director at WhyQuit is excited about the addition of these new youth pages to the site. Spitzer, who worked for the American Cancer Society in the early 1970's coordinating smoking prevention programs for the Chicago Unit, sees the messages as a great resource for young readers.
According to Spitzer, so many of the ad campaigns that are directed at youth have a slick look with students who look professionally staged or posed, using catch phrases that appear to have been written by adults getting the students to say what the adults think young people should hear. Through the decades the message in these types of ads was that smoking wasn't cool, smoking wasn't hip, or whatever the popular phrase was for the day.
"John Polito took a different tactic with these young adults," says Spitzer. "Instead of having his message and agenda planned out, he went to young people smoking at a college campus and simply asked them to write a comment on a white board of what they would say if they were standing in front of 5,000 young teens who were thinking about taking that first puff. What would you tell them, he asked?"
Spitzer notes that the end result was a poignant outpouring of sincerity and honesty that truly captured the essence of the problems of experimenting with smoking. "All of these young people realized that they were hooked on a drug that they likely didn't understand had the potential to grab them before they had smoked their first cigarette."
"Their comments and pictures capture the true insidious nature of nicotine addiction and hopefully will get other young readers to realize the real danger of experimenting with nicotine. Nicotine is a drug that will hook almost all who experiment with it. It will cost them a fortune, ruin their health and will very likely cost them their lives if they are not able to quit."
Can peer to peer dependency honesty actually make a difference? If ten caring College of Charleston students have any say in the matter it will.