Growing up in smoke

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Editors Note: The names of teenage smokers in this story have been changed to protect their identity.

At 13, Jessica tried her first cigarette.

Todd was 15 when he lit up.

Nadine was 12.

Up until that time, they all led different lives. They came from different types of families. After that, their stories of addiction are pretty much the same: peer pressure led to their first cigarettes, which led to trouble at home and school.

All three thought quitting would be easy. All three were wrong.

Today, smokers across the country will put down their cigarettes for 24 hours in observance of American Cancer Society's 29th annual Great American Smokeout.

But some 6,000 youths under age 18 in the U.S. will likely start smoking the next day and every day after, according to the American Lung Association. Of those 6,000 who try cigarettes every day, about 2,000 will become regular smokers.

Jessica, now 17, said she began smoking when a friend asked her to try one.

"Up until then, I'd always said I would never start," said the Cape Girardeau girl. "Then I tried it and it just seemed like the cool thing to do."

Nadine began the same way, at the home of a friend whose parents smoked.

"We just went out and sat on the curb and smoked," she said.

Todd, now 18 and still smoking, said he also started smoking by "hanging out with the wrong people."

"It was a head rush. I liked the taste and it relaxed me," he said.

All three say they knew about the potential side effects of smoking. They knew it could cause cancer, but they did it anyway.

"You start at a young age because you want to be older, you want to be cool," said Jessica. "You see everybody else doing it."

Both girls recently stopped smoking, Nadine because of her health and Jessica because she's pregnant.

Todd has tried to quit once, but found he couldn't. He's still in school and works full time as well. He goes through 12 packs of cigarettes a week. He smokes three cigarettes when he wakes up, four when he gets out of school, two more before going to work, three during breaks at work and four after work, every day.

"You think you can stop. You think it's so easy," said Todd, who lives in Cape Girardeau.

He was caught smoking at school and was suspended.

He still plans to quit, someday.

"Hopefully it won't be too late then," he said.

Seven months pregnant, Jessica still craves nicotine. She originally quit because cigarettes made her sick during the first part of her pregnancy. She didn't start again because she was concerned about the health of her baby girl.

"I hope I don't start again afterwards," she said. "But everyone around me, everyone at home smokes."

In Missouri, it's unlawful to sell, provide or distribute tobacco products to people under age 18. Violating the law can lead to a first offense fine of $25 and up to $250 for a third offense for sales clerks and store owners. Owners are also subject to additional penalities, including a citation prohibiting the sale of tobacco products.

It is also illegal for minors to possess cigarettes, though the penalties are similar to that of a seat belt infraction. For a first offense, the tobacco product is confiscated. On a second offense, the product is confiscated and the youth is required to attend a smoking cessation/tobacco education program. The highest penalty is a $200 fine for a minor in possession of tobacco products.

As an underage teenager in Cape Girardeau, all three agree it's not hard to score cigarettes. Older friends will buy them. A few stores don't card buyers, they said.

"It's not that hard to hide it," said Nadine. "My parents would have been the kind to say my child would never smoke. A lot of parents think that about their children, but most kids have tried it."

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