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Smoking declines among teens, but they still face peer pressure to light up

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Posted: Friday, August 22, 2003 10:00 pm

"We normally wait over there," said 17-year-old Tim Britt, pointing toward a corner near Lodi High School while a Winston cigarette blazes between his two fingers.

"Today it was raining, so we took shelter," he said. His dirty-blond hair was still wet from the brief downpour Thursday afternoon.

Cameron Foster, 16, exhales as his friend, Tim Britt, 17, smokes a cigarette Thursday at the Lakewood Mall. (Jennifer M. Howell/News-Sentinel)

The rosy-cheeked Britt stood beneath the overhang at the Lakewood Mall with about five of his friends - some on bikes and others on skateboards - waiting for a few more companions from Lodi High to join up with them. He took a drag from the cigarette and inhaled the smoke.

Britt wore blue shorts and a white shirt that read: "I'm not an alcoholic - I'm a drunk - Alcoholics go to meetings."

This is a familiar routine for Britt, who goes to Liberty High School.

"We just wait until after school's over," he said. "To chill with our friends."

His friend Cameron Foster, 16, lit-up a Winston, too, after getting up off of his skateboard.

"The way I figure it, the government, they're always tripping about cigarettes," said Foster. "But they're making money off us (with taxes)."

"I think kids are starting to smoke more," Britt said. "They see their friends, their parents or their older brother (smoking). That's how I started."

Britt smoked his first cigarette when he was 15, behind the American Legion Hall, with some friends, he said.

"The first time, I felt light-headed, I didn't know how to inhale the smoke," he said.

Now Britt smokes about a pack of Marlboro Reds daily. He prefers the Reds to the Winstons because they're stronger and have more nicotine, he said. Britt said he doesn't know why he smokes. He does it just to do it, he said.

None of his friends gave definitive reasons either.

Others - adults - think they have some answers to why teens smoke.

"We think its peer pressure," said Judy Yucht, at American Cancer Society of San Joaquin County. "Seeing other teens smoke."

"The media also has a lot to do with it. The media in the form of advertising," she said.

Teen smoking is on the decline in Lodi and California as a whole, said Debbie Whittaker, who heads anti-drug and anti-smoking programs at Lodi Unified. A few teens in the area have joined groups that help fight teen smoking.

The Lodi Unified School District is required biannually to conduct surveys to establish the number of students who have ever used cigarettes,

as well as those who had smoked in the past 30 days, Whittaker said.

The number of students who had ever tried smoking a cigarette declined by 8 percent from 1999 to 2001. The number of students who had smoked within 30 days of the survey date declined by 3 percent within the same time span. The 2001 data was the latest available.

Throughout California, teen smoking is on the decline, Yucht said.

With bans on smoking inside public places, including bars and night clubs, California is one of the most smoke-free states in the nation.

While high school age students are smoking less, the 18- 24-year-old age group's tobacco use is on the rise in California.

Yucht attributes that to a marketing push by tobacco companies toward that group.

Tobacco advertising "is really hyping smoking with these youths," she said.

"They have bar nights and they sponsor events," Yucht said.

It could also have something to do with the nature of that age.

"Maybe they want to do something to prove their free," Yucht said.

At least one teen agrees.

"I think it might just be a rebellious thing," said Jody Garcia, 18. Garcia is the previous president of Students Preventing Youth Smoking/Spit-Tobacco, a countywide program that is part of California's overall concerted push to fight cigarette smoking.

That group is responsible for changing parts of the smoking policies at the San Joaquin Fair. The child sections have been non-smoking since 2000, as have the livestock areas and a quarter of the grandstand at the horse races, said the group's last president, Garcia, 18. Garcia works at Cingular Wireless in Stockton and now attends San Joaquin Delta College. He will join the Navy next March.

The group has also conducted "operation storefront" where groups of students survey liquor stores in a given area. They try and reduce tobacco advertising in the store and also insure that a Stop Tobacco Access to Kids Enforcement sign is posted. The STAKE smoking signs provide a phone numbers to report illegal sales of tobacco to underage teens and are required in all stores that sell tobacco since 1992. Businesses can be fined heavily for selling to minors.

Essentially, smoking still remains a matter of choice.

"If you were a teen and someone offered you a cigarette, what would you do?" asked Dr. John P. Connolly, who sat in the lobby at Lodi Memorial Hospital on Thursday. "There's no medicine, no magic, no silver bullet … it comes down to a 16-year-old's individual choice. All you can do is maximize the positive influences."

The lung specialist said he takes every opportunity to be that influence. His father died of lung cancer and he suffered bronchitis from exposure to secondhand smoke when he was young, he said.

"I'm usually the person in the room sitting across from (a patient) telling them: 'You have lung cancer, you're going to die in a few years,'" he said, adjusting his rimless spectacles. "So when I see someone that's 15 smoking - it makes me shiver sometimes.

"I also deal with emphysema patients - the people that can't breathe. They'd almost trade places with the cancer patients. They slowly smother and the end result is miserable."

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