Despite laws against selling tobacco to minors, the industry reaped half a billion dollars in profits during 1997.
There are so many serious problems facing our young people today. If we forget, today's news stories will remind us of the dangers of violence, drunken driving, alcohol or other drug use, early sexual activity, and many more.
With all of the worries we face, why add the problem of teen smoking to our list? Smoking is legal for adults, and many adults smoke and seem to have little problem with it. Many of us are former smokers, or at least we know many former smokers. It is not necessarily a death sentence, after all. Celebrities do it, friends do it, good and intelligent people do it, so why not save our concern for a really serious problem?
Many of us have been complacent about teen smoking, but the data and issues have become real and serious. In 1997, 3.8 million minors smoked daily, according to a recent study in the American Journal of Public Health. Every day in the United States, 3,000 youths become regular smokers, which adds up to more than 1 million each year.
There are laws against tobacco sales to minors in all 50 states, yet it is estimated that the tobacco industry reaped at least a half-billion dollars in profits from such illegal sales in 1997. Experts estimate that underage youths can purchase cigarettes 70 to 80 percent of the time over the counter, and 90 to 100 percent of the time through vending machines.
A published study reported that teens are more likely to be influenced to smoke by cigarette advertising than they are by peer pressure. Eighty-six percent of kids who smoke prefer Marlboro, Camel and Newport, which are the three most heavily advertised brands. Only about 30 percent of adult smokers choose those brands.
Teen smoking and the influence of advertising are not small or isolated occurrences, but are happening every day with many of our young people in Lawrence, as well as the nation. Tobacco has been found to be a "gateway" substance for many young people, meaning that youths who eventually use other drugs (alcohol, marijuana, etc.) began by smoking cigarettes. Almost 90 percent of adults who have ever been regular smokers began smoking at or before age 18 so it is very likely that youths who never get into the smoking habit will not take it up later in life.
All parents fear violence in schools and in the community, and we are shocked and afraid for our children in Lawrence when we hear about violence in another town. However, the chances that our children will die early in life as a result of violence are far less than their chances of dying early because of smoking. Tobacco has been and remains the only product which results in death to humans if it is used exactly as the makers intended.
So what can a parent do? Don't turn a blind eye to teens smoking. Don't say it is better than some things they could be doing, so you'll just ignore it. Don't say that because you smoke or have smoked you could not draw a firm line with your child. Buying tobacco is against the law for minors, and it is not illegal for adults, so there is a difference.
Don't deny that smoking is deadly and a far greater threat to your child's life than many other things that you try to avoid. Monitor your child's activities and don't be afraid to confront a situation if there is evidence of smoking. Don't be afraid to set rules regarding no smoking. Don't let your teen get away with saying "it's no big deal," because it is deadly and it is addictive.
-- Sydney Karr is executive director of the Lawrence Partnership for Children and Youth.