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Students Use Peer Pressure to Douse Teen Smoking

Health: Some youths have become activists to keep classmates from lighting up. The local movement mirrors state and national trends.

June 09, 2002|CARLA RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On the day Layza Lopez had her sixth birthday party, her father, only 35, clutched his chest in pain and was rushed to the hospital with a heart attack.

He survived, but was told he must quit the smoking habit he picked up as a youth if he wanted to avoid further damage to his health. He did stop, and it made an impression that Layza, now 17, never forgot.

"It was the first true sign that smoking was bad, if my father stopped doing it," Lopez said.

She has since become a warrior in the campaign to head off other teens from developing an addiction to nicotine that can devastate them later in life.

She is a pest around her smoking friends, a blunt messenger of the ways smoking is just so uncool. And she is not alone.

In California, more than any other state, social pressure against lighting up has filtered to young people. That, along with costs and other factors, is driving smoking rates among teenagers to the lowest levels on record.

In 2001, only 5.9% of youths 12 to 17 reported smoking a cigarette in the previous 30 days, according to newly released data from the California Department of Health Services.

That compares to 11% in 1994, the first year such surveys were conducted.

California is leading a national trend that finds smoking rates falling sharply among teenagers, after a rise during the early 1990s.

Nationally, 28% of high school students say they have smoked in the last month, down from 36% in 1997, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Experts attribute the decline to higher cigarette prices, removal of Joe Camel-like tobacco advertising that appealed to young people and creative anti-smoking campaigns that deglamorize the activity.

A growing number of young people like Layza Lopez are involved in education programs designed by teens for teens.

"Kids have come to see a number of drugs as dangerous in the last several years; peer norms are changing," said Lloyd D. Johnston, a principal investigator at the University of Michigan Institute of Social Research, which recently produced a national survey charting the decline in teen smoking.

"Also, during the time that Congress was considering tobacco legislation, there was a great deal of exposure of what was going on in the tobacco industry and kids saw themselves as being manipulated."

California has pioneered legislation limiting smoking in public places, chilling the climate for smokers of all ages. More young people in the state grow up in an environment that is far less tolerant of secondhand smoke and in homes where nonsmoking parents do not pass along the habit.

The issue of youth smoking is generating intense interest. In an effort to influence more youths, state Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) recently introduced legislation to raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21, after such a move was endorsed by the California Medical Assn.

A Superior Court judge last week found that the R.J Reynolds Co.--makers of brands such as Camel, Winston and Salem--had violated the terms of the 1998 tobacco settlement prohibiting magazine ads aimed at teens, and fined the company $20 million.

Researching Addiction

Experts say that many youngsters are still too easily lured into taking that first puff. And, compared to adults, they say, it is just as hard, maybe harder, for teenagers to kick the habit.

New medical research is finding that adolescents can develop cravings after a few draws and become addicted within weeks. According to a University of Massachusetts study, they are far more likely than others to fail in efforts to quit. According to the American Lung Assn., 67% of teens who smoke say they want to quit and 70% wish they had not started. Researchers are trying to find out if physiology may play a role.

Gevorg Kbulchyan, 17, and a senior at Los Angeles' Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School, says he dreams of waking up one day and not having cravings, of finishing a meal or a movie and not reaching for a pack. At his peak, he would go through 25 to 30 cigarettes a day, not thinking of eating.

He's been caught on campus a few times, recently with a lighter, and had to attend mandatory smoking education classes. If caught with tobacco, students face suspension, transfer and even court fines.

On a previous occasion, he had to watch a video of people with diseased lungs hooked up to a breathing machine.

Then he got a chest infection and an X-ray revealed that his own lungs were affected.

"The doctor asked me if I smoked, but I wouldn't admit it in front of my mom," Kbulchyan said.

He made a resolution to cut back on nicotine, but he has not yet won the battle. He started smoking when he was 14, influenced, he said, by a family of smokers.

"It's not something you're proud of," Kbulchyan said. "When you start, you don't think it's going to affect you." He puckers his nose and adds, "Sometimes I smell my jacket and think, 'How can people stand me?' "

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