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Smoking Report Falls on Deaf Ears : Teen-Age Puffers Say They're Not Quitters--Yet

May 19, 1988|DAVID WHARTON | Times Staff Writer

Jennifer Allen was hanging out at a Mobil gas station on Ventura Boulevard, smoking Marlboro Lights.

don't care about my health," the 14-year-old said, "just as long as I have my cigarettes."

Allen had heard about Monday morning's government report on nicotine addiction. So had the girls walking through Northridge Fashion Center and the kids smoking in the Taft High School parking lot in Woodland Hills. None of them were about to quit.

Sean Hyland, walking to class at Monroe High in Sepulveda, said he knew why Surgeon General C. Everett Koop compared cigarettes to heroin and cocaine.

"It feels like there's another person inside you," said Hyland, an 18-year-old who has smoked for more than a year. "You've just got to have another cigarette."

Almost one in five high school seniors smokes every day, according to a 1986 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. About 15% of all teen-agers smoke, the institute says. Cigarette use among youths has declined over the last decade, but not as dramatically as it has with adults.

In the wake of Monday's 618-page federal report, the surgeon general's annual release on smoking, Koop called for legislation that would keep cigarettes out of teen-agers' mouths. People who begin smoking at that age run a high risk of becoming addicted to nicotine, said Dr. Thomas Novotny, the managing editor of the report.

"The problem is, the addiction starts when you're young, when you're just experimenting," said Novotny, a medical epidemiologist for the federal Office of Smoking and Health. "It seems as though when we ask teen-age people if they think they're going to be smoking in a few years, they all say 'no.' When you're young, you don't realize the risks of smoking. No one thinks of themselves as being addicted at that age."

Valley teens who smoke said they believe cigarettes are addicting. A few conceded that they might never quit, but most thought they could, and would, stop eventually.

"I have asthma, so it's especially bad for me," said Ilysse Kracow, 15, of Tarzana. "It won't be that easy but . . . I'll have to quit sometime."

Tobacco lobbyists insist that smokers can quit whenever they decide to, and the Tobacco Institute attacked Koop's statements that nicotine is physically addictive. The surgeon general acknowledged that more than 40 million Americans have been able to stop smoking. Yet, he said, 75% to 85% of current smokers would like to quit but cannot.

And a 15-year-old who has been smoking for three or four years can already be hooked, Novotny said.

"I don't think I can quit," said Ricardo Martinez, 18, a high school senior from West Los Angeles.

Many teen-agers start smoking because of friends or the "cool" image. Others begin out of curiosity. Martinez said he first enjoyed the physical pleasure.

"It gave me head rushes at first. I'm serious . . . Camel non-filters," he said. "And I've lost 30 pounds since I started smoking."

A few of the young people interviewed blamed their habit on growing up with parents and siblings who smoked. Tina Hewitt said she started at age 11 because of her older sister.

"She's six years older than me and she told me I could hang out with her," said Hewitt, now 14. "I thought it was cool. I was stupid."

Another attractive aspect of cigarettes, according to Koop, is availability. He has recommended stronger laws to prohibit the sale of cigarettes to minors.

"Is it appropriate for tobacco products to be sold through vending machines, which are easily accessible to children?" Koop asked at a news conference. "Shouldn't we treat tobacco sales at least as seriously as the sale of alcoholic beverages, for which a specific license is required and revoked for repeated sales to minors?"

California is one of 43 states in which it is illegal to sell cigarettes to anyone under the age of 18. But teen-agers said they don't have much trouble with that law. Cigarettes are so easily purchased in stores, the youths said, that no one buys from more expensive vending machines.

"I'm 16, and I can get cigarettes at any store," said Christina Henry of Canoga Park. "They don't care. They just want your money."

"That's where my lunch money goes," said David Meichelbok, her 18-year-old boyfriend.

At $1.30 or more a pack, the cost of cigarettes can add up for a high-school student. The money comes from after-school jobs, friends and parents, teen-agers said.

"I just tell my mom that I want money," Allen said.

Perhaps the greatest resistance to teen-age smoking comes from schools. Smoking isn't allowed on any campus in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Teachers can smoke only away from the students, in private offices, staff lunchrooms and employee lounges.

At Monroe, students said they must sneak cigarettes in the bathroom. At Taft, they walk out to the tennis courts.

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