My Dad was a factory worker who enjoyed a good pull from a
Heineken after a hard day as a shade tree mechanic. He also
smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes. As a self-righteous teenager,
fresh out of health class where they showed me pictures of
diseased lungs, I often chastised him for “polluting my world.”
Eventually he quit smoking in his 50s, but he suffered from
emphysema for most of his retirement and died only three years
after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. I watched him die a
terribly slow death, trying to catch every breath. So the very
last thing I needed was to have my sons take up smoking.
My heart just about stopped when I picked up the phone at
work and the assistant principal at Wheaton-Warrenville South
High School in Wheaton, Ill., was on the line.
Mr. Principal was calling to say that my sophomore, Steven,
had been caught smoking and was issued a ticket by the campus
police officer. Since this was his first offence, he could stay
in school, but there would be consequences for future issues.
All the way home I practiced my Don’t-Smoke-Over-My-Dead-Body
Steve defused my angst by saying, “All I was doing was
holding Freddy’s cigs. They weren’t mine.” And, I believed him.
Because I wanted to believe that he’d be smarter than that. But,
the next time Steve was caught smoking behind the school and Mr.
Principal called my office, I had to pick him up for a three-day
suspension from school. I was so mad at him.
As a single mother raising my three boys alone, I was always
vigilant for any signs of pending juvenile delinquency. Breaking
curfew, truancy, skipping classes, were all on my list as
warning signs that they were eventually going to spend the rest
of their lives in prison orange garb. Smoking was definitely
out, especially after seeing Grandpa’s struggle.
Steve continued to smoke, and has continued the habit into
adulthood, despite my objections. I have observed, however, how
the cigarette companies targeted my sons. Almost every week
while my three were in high school and beyond, I’d throw away
the direct mail pieces from Camel cigarettes, offering coupons
for discounted sexy, new tastes and brands. I shouldn’t be
surprised, but I was, at how tenacious the marketers were at
reaching my sons.
But the mailers I diligently threw away didn’t have the bland
artwork that Lucky Strikes used. This was Joe Camel for the new
smoking generation. It was cool and that’s exactly what they
were using to entice my young men with. That and the Marlboro
Man, an equally masculine hero to worship.
A more disturbing study published in the Journal of the
American Medical Association (1991) found that by age six nearly
as many children could correctly respond that “Joe Camel” was
associated with cigarettes as could identify that the Disney
Channel logo was related to Mickey Mouse.
My own three sons have all smoked, much to my dismay. I am
adamantly against smoking. By anyone. Even Luke Skywalker called
them “death sticks” when he was offered some in one of the Star
Wars movies. But my own sons are not alone. According to the
American Lung Association, every minute 4,800 teens will take
their first drag off of a cigarette. And, of those,
approximately 2,000 will become chain-smokers, ensnared by a
habit. Research has shown that it’s rare for an adult to form a
smoking habit and that most picked up their first cigarette when
they were impressionable teens.
In an effort to protect the health of the American population
and to prevent teens from ever picking up that first cigarette,
the federal Food and Drug Administration has released nine
graphic images designed to deter smoking. They include a picture
of a man smoking from his tracheotomy and messages such as
“Smoking can kill you.” The current warning is small and usually
placed on the side of the cigarette packages. Canadian warnings
are much more pronounced and other countries do use graphic
warnings on cigarette packaging to deter citizens from smoking.
And, yet, they still pick up those packages, in ever increasing
numbers, according to the American Lung Association. Despite all
of our education, research and scientific knowledge, when we’re
teenagers we’re still dumber than rocks when it comes to things
like making good choices.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
finally has figured out what the problem is with teens and poor
impulse control. Scientists have identified a specific region of
the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for
instinctual reactions including fear and aggressive behavior.
This region develops early. However, the frontal cortex, the
area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think
before we act, develops later. This part of the brain is still
changing and maturing well into adulthood.
Because of these differences in brain development, teens are
more likely to:
Get in accidents
Get involved in fights
Engage in dangerous or risky behaviors
And because of these brain issues, they’re less likely to:
Think before they act
Pause to consider consequences of their actions
Modify dangerous or inappropriate behaviors.
So here we are parents. We now have the answer to this
age-old question of “Why?” So my sons, even after I’ve warned
them and they’ve seen their grandfather die of lung cancer,
directly related to his Lucky Strike habit, they still pick up
those “death sticks” and take their first puff.