Keeping Kids From Lighting Up
When an antismoking advertisement appears on TV, Lori Rupolo talks to her eight-year-old son, Michael, about it.Skip to next paragraph
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"You're not going to do that," she will say, "Do you know why?"
He's got all the answers down pat. Still, she worries. "He can tell me he's never going to [smoke], but when he turns 15 or 16, there are going to be other kids who do."
Mrs. Rupolo's concern is not uncommon. Parents often assume that peer pressure is an influence they can't fight. But a growing number of researchers say that parents, relatives, and mentors can play a significant role in a child's decision to smoke - or not.
"Kids tell us very clearly that the place they get scripting from is parents," says Pamela Clark, a longtime researcher on teen smoking. That script "needs to be strong and unambiguous. 'You will not use tobacco. Period.' "
When children don't have a strong script to draw from they will pull from elsewhere. Friends. Other relatives. Media messages, including those at tobacco-sponsored sporting events and parties (see story below). And Hollywood (remember Leonardo DiCaprio's character in "Titanic"?).
"My parents know, but they don't say anything," says Benoit, a French youth visiting Boston who smokes "at parties and on vacation."
In many countries, including the United States, Brazil, Singapore, and India, there are government efforts to provide an antismoking script. "Parents need to communicate a very strong message, but community and society need to back up parents in a big way," says Jean Forster, professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota.
President Clinton and some members of Congress are still working on a tobacco industry deal that would raise the tax on cigarettes, end marketing to children, and fund smoking-cessation programs. Many states are spending millions of dollars on antismoking programs in schools, on television, in concerts, and are mounting sting operations against shopkeepers who sell cigarettes to children.
Behind such efforts are sobering statistics. By age 18, 2 out of every 3 young Americans have tried smoking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. About half of the adolescents who tried it went on to smoke daily. White high-schoolers are almost twice as likely to become daily smokers as Hispanics, according to a 1997 CDC survey. And it's not a guy thing any longer. As many white and Hispanic girls now smoke as boys. Black students have the lowest smoking rate.
Enhancing self-image is a prime motivator among smokers. "It ties in with how they perceive themselves," says Mary Halbach, director of community health in Barberton, Ohio, who works with middle-school students. "Where do I fit in?" they will ask. If I'm not an athlete, not in the smart group or band, I'll be a risk-taker smoker.
Peer pressure often prompts the first puff. "Every kid has their first cigarette with friends; I never smoked by myself," says Stephanie, a Boston teen who says she used to smoke.
But teens, like the experts, are divided over the ultimate power of peers."The peer pressure argument is a crock," says Brian, a Cincinnati teenager, who smokes occasionally.
"There is no penalty in saying 'no' or going against the group," says Dr. Clark at Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, who has been studying teens and smoking for five years. Many teens interviewed by the Monitor agreed.