In the barrage of messages aimed at teens about smoking, most describe the dangers and its undisputable link to lung cancer, heart disease and a host of other illnesses. Still, one in five U.S. teens smokes, according to a 2009 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What speaks louder than all those warnings is the actions of a few celebrities and artists, says C.C., 18, a high school senior from Indianapolis who did not want her real name used.
“A lot of African Americans smoke Newports. You see certain rappers and stuff smoking them, and I think a lot of kids look at that and be like, ‘Well dang, you know, my favorite rapper’s smoking, maybe I’m going to start smoking,’” she said.
Breshae Donaldson, 17, volunteers with VOICE, the youth-led anti-tobacco movement that started in Indiana in 2001. She agrees that artists and advertisements in the music industry boost teenagers’ opinions of smoking. “Most of the teens look up to the different entertainers, like Young Jeezy and Beyonce. And if you look up to them and they’re smoking, then you’re going to want to smoke, too, or you’re going to want to do what they’re doing.”
Trying to combat that attitude is VOICE’s nationwide campaign “Don’t Glam Tobacco,” which encourages youth to circulate petitions and letters to stop artists from advertising tobacco products in their videos.
It’s not just artists who encourage smoking but also tobacco advertising and sponsorship at youth events, says Elizabeth Sumpter, who coordinates tobacco control programs for the Health and Hospital Corporation of Marion County.
“With youth, it’s more (companies) sponsoring music artists or putting really colorful ads in magazines or sponsoring sporting events,” she said.
Sumpter explained that the tobacco companies not only target teenagers with their ads, but they offer discounts to young adults.
“They send coupons, free offers, and they used to send like jackets and lighters and ashtrays to adults,” she said.
Sumpter noted that tobacco companies are cunning about the way they try to bring in teenagers, using bright, candy-colored packaging and putting advertising at eye level in convenience stores.
“They’ve also had flavored cigarettes in the past, like coconut, strawberry,” she said. “You can still see some mini cigars that are flavored, like with chocolate.
“They’re very clever and they have millions and millions of dollars,” she added. “Every year they spend like over $100 million in Indiana to just advertise the products.” But ads and celebrities are not solely to blame for teen smoking. Studies show that many teenagers adopt the habit because of peer pressure. C.C. started smoking more than a year ago after a friend offered her a cigarette.
“First time I smoked, my friend was like, ‘Try this.’ I don’t know, just a bad habit added up ’cause I ended up picking it up.’”
C.C. says she smokes about four cigarettes a day, mainly to relieve stress. She has tried to stop because she know the dangers and risks, and also because her mother disapproves. However, it never lasts for long.
“I know there’s the possibility you can get all kinds of cancer, like lung cancer, emphysema, stuff like that, shortness of breath. … I went a whole week without smoking,” she said. “But, I don’t know, like something came up and then I was like, ‘I need a cigarette.’”
Breshae and Sumpter want to prevent more youth from falling into the smoking trap, and they believe education is the key.
Tiffany Nichols, health educator with the Minority Health Coalition of Marion County and adult ally of VOICE, said kids will wise up when they realize the tobacco industry is pursuing them.
“The slogan ‘knowledge is power’ means that if you arm the kids with the knowledge that they’re being targeted, then they can make a conscious decision to not smoke because they realize that the products and the advertising is geared directly toward them,” she said.
Sumpter noted that youth seem to be getting the message, with smoking rates dropping among Indiana students. “That’s the good news … the middle school rate is like 8 percent and high school is like 12 percent.”
Perhaps people have become more conscious of the dangers of smoking and the strategies that the tobacco industries have employed. Perhaps they aren’t willing to spend $5 for something that isn’t good for them.
But as long as young people smoke, VOICE will be in their faces about it.
“I actually have a lot of friends who smoke, so I know it’s like a big thing,” Breshae said.
Assistant editor Reginetta White, 17, and reporter Patrick Naremore, 12, contributed to this report.
Copyright 2011 Y-Press