Views on Teen Smoking From Denver Schoolyard

Clinton's call to cut underage smoking is met with skepticism in a city with one of nation's highest teen smoking rates.

John F. Kennedy High School is ground zero in the nation's fight against teenage smoking.

Ten days ago, the Denver school district - where the rate of teen smoking is among the nation's worst - officially took a step that more and more high schools across the country are following: It became smoke-free.

Unofficially, however, the smoking continues. When the lunchtime bell rings, scores of students scurry off school grounds, clustering along the sidewalk and spilling over into the tidy yards of this tranquil southwest Denver neighborhood. All just to light a cigarette.

Teenage smokers here say it's naive to expect a tobacco ban to keep kids away from cigarettes. "If people want to smoke, they will find a way to do it," says 17-year-old Adam. "Look at prohibition - did that keep people from drinking?"

While the nation wages a war on youth smoking, the prevailing question is whether established approaches - including smoke-free schools, antismoking campaigns, cigarette warning labels, and restricted advertising - have any real impact. And with President Clinton calling for a 30 percent reduction in underage smoking within 10 years, the question has never had greater significance.

More than 3 million American adolescents currently smoke cigarettes, and a million more youths take up smoking every year. Indeed, a 1996 University of Michigan study indicates that this number is rising. The study asked students if they had smoked during the past month, and 50 percent more high school students said yes in 1996 than in 1991.

In Colorado, the state health department reports that 71 percent of youths have smoked by age 13. In Denver high schools, that percentage runs even higher: A 1995 study reveals that more than 75 percent of 13-year-olds have tried smoking at least once - translating to one of the highest youth-smoking figures in the country.

To bring these numbers down, experts recommend a varied approach - combining so-called scare tactics with strict underage smoking laws and reduced accessibility of cigarettes to minors.

Teaching youths about the risks and addictive nature of cigarette smoking is key, maintains Joe Cherner, president of the New York-based Smokefree Educational Services. "The one message that we're not getting to young people is that tobacco is as addictive as crack, cocaine, and heroin. We need to start teaching this early - beginning in nursery schools."

But educators are fighting a number of problems. Many teens say that the antismoking message rings hollow when they see so many of their elders continuing to smoke. Plus, experts say, teens are attracted to smoking as a form of rebellion or to be accepted by their peers. From James Dean's rebel in the 1950s to Leonardo DiCaprio's Romeo in the '90s, smoking has been portrayed as something cool, and kids have tapped into that image.

"I really don't care what society says about it," says Adam, who like the other students interviewed at Kennedy asked to be identified by his first name only. He smoked his first cigarette as a fourth-grader and notes that teens don't worry about what's socially acceptable.

"I think people should mind their own business," he says. "Smoking is a personal choice. It's not like we're hurting anybody else. It's not like we're going around in gangs and shooting people."

Others are even more low-key about smoking. "It's something to do," says 19-year-old Christy, a Kennedy senior who started smoking at 16.

And teen smokers at Kennedy High scoff at the suggestion they're ignorant of the risks of smoking. "We know all about that," says Adam. "Look, it's printed right here on the package," he says, pointing to the Surgeon General's warning on the side of his box of Marlboro Reds.

Christy, who with her pale blond hair and sunny smile more readily evokes a homecoming queen than a decadent rebel, nods in agreement. "I've heard all my life why I shouldn't smoke. I know all the risks. But, it's like, oh well ... I've gotten past that," she says, flush with the invincibility of youth. "I'll quit when I'm ready to. I just don't have a good reason to right now."

Sean, 15, began smoking about two years ago. "I smoked the first pack because of peer pressure. Then after that I sort of liked it," he says. And despite his youth, obtaining cigarettes has never been a problem: Older teens buy cartons of cigarettes and sell packs in the school parking lot, usually for a dollar profit.

But what if cigarette prices jumped $1.50 per pack, as Clinton proposes - would that get teens off cigarettes? "It depends how much money I was making," responds Christy. "Right now, I can afford to smoke as much as I want."

For 17-year-old Eric, a price increase could be a deterrent, though.

"If they raised it so much that I couldn't afford it, I'd stop. Or if I got lung cancer I'd stop." Meanwhile, he's willing to take his chances, he says. "I figure I'm still young."

Larry Lindauer, Kennedy High's principal since 1994, has no illusions about what he's up against. "Prevention would be the best way to go," he says. "But the fact is, scare tactics simply don't work."

Prevention, however, has met with some success. Antismoking groups are targeting ever younger students to teach them about the dangers of tobacco before peer pressure mounts. Some projects have begun the process as early as kindergarten, while others are focusing on middle school.

Efforts by the Food and Drug Administration to make it harder for kids to buy tobacco may make a dent. But these laws are difficult to enforce, says Mr. Lindauer. Police have better things to do than cite minors for smoking, and declaring Denver schools "smoke-free" is unlikely to fare better.

"Maybe they're going a block or two away, but they are continuing to smoke," he adds. "This is a societal issue and it's not going to be resolved unless someone figures out how to reduce smoking on a societal basis."

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