Sarah Darby was only eight years old when her best friend persuaded her to try a cigarette. Both her parents were heavy smokers, so Sarah saw nothing wrong with taking a few experimental puffs - just to learn what the taste of tobacco was all about.
Sarah is now 16, the legal smoking age in Britain, and smokes about a pack a day. She spends about $18 a week on cigarettes, or more than a third of her earnings working part-time after school.
"I've thought about quitting, I've tried, but it hasn't worked. I want to, because it costs too much," she says.
Children like Sarah have prompted the British government to take action. But it is relying on positive rather than negative messages to get its antismoking message across.
Britain has not gone as far as the US, which just classified cigarettes as a drug, a measure that will allow regulation of advertising and sales. But last month, officials launched "Respect," a three-year campaign that aims both to stop young people from taking up smoking and to encourage current smokers to stop.
The scheme, which is targeted at teenagers but hopes to attract preteens as well, is managed by the private communications consultant Brewer Blackler Ltd. at a cost of $1.6 million per year. It follows up a moderately successful Teenage Smoking Campaign, which was launched in 1989.
"In certain older age groups there is a certain slight upward trend, something we have to be worried about and very careful about," says Bill Coyne of the Department of Health's Tobacco Policy Unit, which has helped design Respect. "In adult terms, smoking is going down every year, but the two paths will cross, so we have to take action as soon as we can."
Twelve percent of all 11 to 15 year olds in Britain smoke regularly, with at least 30 percent of all schoolchildren having experimented with cigarettes before age 11, according to a recent survey commissioned by the governmental Health Education Authority. About 30 percent of all 15-year-old girls and 26 percent of all 15-year-old boys smoke regularly, with the trend worsening in the slightly older age group.
Unlike programs in the past that have enjoyed only limited success, Respect will not rely on frightening young people with stories of illness and bad breath. Instead, it will concentrate on the positive by accentuating alternatives to smoking.
"There isn't a great deal of mileage to be gained from telling people that smoking is bad for them, they already know that. The goody-goody standing up and saying: 'I don't smoke, why should you?' has its drawbacks," says Mr. Coyne. "Our concentration will be on trying to provide alternatives."
To accomplish this, youth magazines will feature relatively subtle antismoking messages. Their aim will be to point out that healthy, fun alternatives - such as sports and other leisure pursuits - are cooler than tobacco.
Young readers will be encouraged to send away for discount vouchers on brand-name tennis shoes, computer software, and pizza dinners, all of which are tied into activities intended to be wholesome smoking substitutes. And national TV and sports stars will tour schools and feature in high-profile ads promoting a healthy, nicotine-free lifestyle.
Studies have shown that while most young people experiment with cigarettes because of peer pressure, they are twice as likely to make smoking a habit if one or both parents smoke. Currently, about 28 percent of all women and 26 percent of all men in England smoke, although it is unclear at what age they start.
"Teenagers already know all the arguments against smoking, but from our research we've found it's not only peer pressure, but the pressure of day-to-day life, of exams, parents, and boyfriends, that's making them smoke as well," says Justine Daniels, a consultant at Brewer Blackler Ltd. "We know they don't smoke only because they think its cool, but because it's part of their life. That's why they need something else to do."
Other organizations have long been trying to buck the teenage trend. Ash, a nongovernmental antismoking lobby, has worked hard - if unsuccessfully - to ban all tobacco advertising, especially that aimed at youth. But while such a proposal has been tabled in the European Parliament since 1989, it has been blocked each time it has come to a vote.
"What is worrying is that ... children [are] still experimenting as much now as they were 10 or 15 years ago. Their general awareness of the effects of smoking has grown, but they are being exposed to pressure to smoke from adults and from advertising," says Ash spokeswoman Amanda Sanford. Proof of this, she adds, is that while most adults are brand-loyal when it comes to cigarettes, children smoke the most heavily advertised brands.
Although it is illegal for children under 16 to purchase cigarettes, previous surveys have shown that many British children are successful in buying them both from vending machines and local shops. That is true despite the 1991 Children and Young Person Act, which raised penalties for those selling tobacco to underage individuals.
Ash, which has also campaigned to publicize the dangers of passive smoking, recently lobbied for a bill that would require all pubs which allow children to provide nonsmoking areas.
Ms. Sanford says Britain has some of the most archaic smoking regulations in Europe. No-smoking areas in restaurants are voluntary, and smoking bans in public transport areas are at discretion of the owners. The same is true for employers, although as a result of European regulation, nonsmoking rest areas must be provided - if rest areas are provided at all.
Some teen smokers already are trying to give up the habit. Colin White started smoking three years ago when he was 16. He says he would like to quit but doesn't seem to be able to. His parents don't know he smokes.
"It's horrible. It doesn't taste nice at all," says Colin, who was spending the afternoon at a video arcade, as was Sarah. "I do it just because it's a habit, I guess."
Sarah says her mother lets her smoke at home, despite health concerns. "I don't worry about health," Sarah says. "It doesn't seem to bother me."
Some have apparently resisted the temptation to smoke, although among Colin's and Sarah's friends they seem to be in the minority. "Every single one of my friends smokes, but I don't," says 14-year-old Guy Williams, a serious-looking young man. "There's no point."