Cigarettes for sale, at school

Mexico City - "I just started two months ago," says Luis Gerardo, a 15-year-old with dark eyes and a sweet smile.

Passing a cigarette around a circle of four boys, Luis denies with a grin and a quick shove a friend's claim that he took up tobacco to impress a certain girl.

"No, I guess it's because all my friends smoke and I wanted to be a part of them," says Luis, whose friends have smoked up to four years.

It's not hard for the teens to get their smokes. In Mexico almost every school has its line of vendors out front, selling everything from tacos and popcorn to chips, candy, and drinks.

Many also sell cigarettes, either by the pack or individually. And at 1 peso per cigarette - a dime or less - a cigarette is often the cheapest item the vendor is selling. Many of them say they don't sell to "under-age" kids, and some even refuse to include smokes at their stand. But just the juxtaposition of cigarettes with suckers and chewing gum makes tobacco look like a normal part of childhood.

The schoolchildren claim they have never seen any antismoking campaign.

"I do remember once a poster saying secondary smoke is dangerous, but we've never had anything in our school to show the bad sides of smoking," says Alejandro Rodrguez, one of Luis's friends.

If they did, adds friend Jos, it might have an effect. "We had a program about the dangers of alcohol, and when they showed us pictures of a drinker's liver that made me think twice about drinking alcohol."

Another telling indicator: The smokers among the swarms of kids outside the school tended to have at least one smoking parent, while the nonsmokers did not.

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