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Kicking the Habit

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Principal Juanita Lampi leans over to sniff Brian Nagle's outstretched hand. Several of Brian's schoolmates have disputed the 8th grader's claim that the last time he smoked a cigarette was nearly a week ago. So Lampi wants to smell for herself.

Tobacco's distinctive odor does cling to the lanky 15-year-old's fingers.. But with the practiced nose of a former smoker, Lampi decides that they don't betray a recent drag.

Lampi's not out to nail Brian with a punishment. She's just enforcing honesty, one of the three ground rules of the "Hi! I.Q. Club" here at Loggers' Run Community Middle School. In this case, I.Q. doesn't stand for intelligence quotient, but it might as well. The club's name means "Hi! I quit smoking."

Other students in the school spend the first 20 minutes of their day in an adviser-group meeting. But 7th and 8th graders like Brian tromp down to the conference room next to the principal's office for their smoking-cessation support group.

Sort of a cross between a 12-step program and a Scout troop, the club confronts the reality that these still-growing children have a grown-up bad habit. Sounding like addicts of harder drugs, the youngsters speak of the stranglehold of nicotine cravings during a recent club meeting. And like senior citizens, they talk matter-of-factly about their aches and pains.

Indeed, smoking seems to compete with adolescence to reshape their bodies. They suffer from shortness of breath and hacking coughs. They can't jog or swim as far as they once could.

As shocking as it is to hear these teens talk about their struggles with smoking, it pays to remember that across campus at this very hour the 6th-grade smokers have their own Hi! I.Q. group. And they're only 11.

But the Loggers' Run student smokers are far from unusual. One out of three adolescents uses tobacco by age 18, and about two-thirds of adolescents have tried smoking cigarettes by that age, according to Preventing Tobacco Use Among Young People, a report by the U.S. Surgeon General released last year. What's more, the report adds, the younger children are when they start smoking, the more likely they are to become smokers, and heavier smokers, as adults.

Federal data show that 31 percent of high school seniors who had ever smoked first tried it by the time they reached the 6th grade; 61 percent had smoked by the 8th grade.

Cigarette smoking is considered the chief preventable cause of premature disease and death in the United States. So preventing tobacco use among young people, the report concludes, can significantly reduce long-term health consequences.

But few school programs address help to students who already smoke. Prevention is more often the watchword in health classes, for example.

The club's unusual approach has turned Lampi--and the young smokers--into media darlings since she founded the club in October. The local newspapers and television stations have been all over the story. And last month, the club even made national headlines on the "NBC Nightly News."

Choosing To Quit

On the other side of the school's back fence is the place that pushed Lampi, who grew up on a Kentucky tobacco farm, to start the anti-smoking club.

On this bend in a quiet suburban road within sight of a handful of homes, old wrappers from Marlboro cigarette packs lie smashed into the grass. Smoking is verboten on school property, so when students want to indulge, they follow the letter of the law, step a few feet out from the chain link, and light up.

In this affluent community along south Florida's Gold Coast, smoking seems to be one of the moreserious discipline problems. Delinquency at 1,883-student Loggers' Run means a few gang-member wannabes, and schoolyard fistfights are rare.

Over the years, Lampi had received a handful of phone calls from neighbors and parents complaining about the young smokers. But last fall, she took yet another call from an adult grumbling about the illicit activity out back, and she decided to take action.

She considered videotaping the students and showing the tape to their parents. But she later thought, "Instead of catching them and punishing them, let me try to capture them, and see what we can do to get them to stop."

At the time she created the club last fall, Lampi wasn't even sure anyone would show up. But not only did they come, they kept coming.

To insure sincerity, another ground rule of the club, Lampi had each of the prospective members draft a letter stating why he or she wanted to become a member. One boy was blunt: "I would like to join the club because I've coughed up blood, and I think that is a bad sign."

The group met for a week before it even had a name. But Lampi liked Hi! I.Q. when she hit on it because it carries positive connotations. It means"'Yeah, you're smart, you want to quit smoking,'" she explains.

Lampi thinks voluntary attendance will prove vital to the club's success. "I didn't want kids to feel that it was something their parents and I decided was best for them," she says. "It's totally their choice to be in it."

Ultimately, the main goal of the club is to change behavior. "If I can get them in the habit of breaking the habit," Lampi says, "they know they can have power over it."

Fighting the Urge

One Monday morning, Lampi asks how many clubmembers were able to go all weekend without smoking. Of the 17 students who showed up, a handful of whom are recent quitters, five or six raise their hands.

How many haven't smoked yet this morning? Lampi asks. More hands go up.

As a group, they check the board at the back of the room that lists "quitters" and those "still trying." The quitters total eight students and a school receptionist. Those still smoking number 15.

Another question from Lampi: When you smoke, do you think about the fact you are not supposed to be doing it? Self-conscious smiles appear around the table. One girl admits: "I quit for a while, then I started smoking again."

Lampi does her best to be supportive, not judgmental. "I'm really, truly trying to show them I care enough about them to take the time to do this and try to help them quit," she says, "not to try to make them feel guilty about it or punish them in the process."

When asked why they started to smoke, a chorus of club members' voices says they were "curious." Others call out that they wanted to see "why everyone did it" and "how it would taste."

Some say they got into smoking because they saw brothers and sisters do it. About half say their parents smoke.

Brian Nagle says he picked up the habit for something to do. "I felt bored. It's something to do when you're bored." His smoking continues despite a heart condition that makes him short of breath.

Each student fights the nicotine demon at different times of the day. For 14-year-old Sara Akin, the tough part comes on the way to school each morning. She walks with a friend who smokes, and it's tough, she says, to keep from joining in.

Brian Brady, also 14, says he craves a smoke after lunch, while classmate Evie Joy Trombley cites an agonizing two-mile bus ride home. Lighting a cigarette, she says, is "the first thing I do when I get off the bus."

Evie Joy, who is among those having the hardest time quitting, adds that she spends all her money on cigarettes. Sometimes, she says, she wakes up in the middle of the night needing a smoke.

But the young smokers all claim that they really want to quit. "I'm afraid I'm gonna die," Brian Brady says, "I never thought I could get addicted."

They all also share a healthy skepticism about preventing teenage smoking simply by telling students not to smoke. Students will try that stuff anyway, they insist.

Evie Joy has a better idea: If a student were to hear from "an older kid that you really looked up to who doesn't smoke," she says, "you might not."

Relieving Stress

Lampi says if there's a profile of the precocious smoker, it would be "those kids who perceive themselves as older and more mature than their peer group." Therefore, she says, they are "more prone to experiment with so-called 'adult behaviors.'"

But Mary Osgood, the mathematics teacher who has run the 6th-grade Hi! I.Q. Club since its inception this winter, says she cannot say the same of the 10 students in her group.

But the 6th graders do seem to have a common reason for starting: stress. The students have told her they smoke when they encounter conflict and frustration, such as in an argument with parents or stepparents. "They say a cigarette calms them down," Osgood says.

In her club they talk about many of the same issues the 7th and 8th graders have--the temptation to have a cigarette, what's a wiser option, the consequences of smoking. Osgood, a former social smoker who is now a health-conscious athlete, says she tries to give them alternative behaviors to having a cigarette, such as calling up a friend, punching a pillow, cooling down by counting to 10.

One club member who successfully kicked the habit back in November is Dennis Johnston. A well-mannered, bespectacled 7th grader, Dennis knows firsthand the most devastating consequences of smoking. His father, a smoker, died last year of lung and kidney cancer at age 41.

But that wasn't enoughto persuade Dennis, 13, to quit. He started smoking in 6th grade. But when he satin the Hi! I.Q. Club meeting, he says, "I saw a lot of them there coughing, spitting." And they all wanted to quit.

Without the club, he admits, "I'd still be smoking--definitely." He says if students elsewhere had such a club, "I think it would be good because kids that are in the club right now are trying to quit. Why can't any other kid?"

Reaching Out

Since the club garnered national publicity on NBC, Lampi has received requests for information on Hi! I.Q. not only from elsewhere within the Palm Beach County school district but from other schools across the country.

However, what research exists on school-based smoking-cessation programs has found they are often unsuccessful, according to the Surgeon General's report. That said, all of the studies quoted in the report involved high school students and cessation sessions held much less frequently than those at Loggers' Run. And some involved students who were referred involuntarily.

Staff members and students alike at Loggers' Run think schools need to reach out to students who are already smoking.

That includes Brian Brady's mother, Donna.

"I think it's great," Brady says of the club. "I think every day they go, they're thinking about it."

Brady, who is an office assistant at Loggers' Run, says she's not surprised Brian smokes because both she and her husband do.

"I just wish they'd continue something like this in high school," she adds. "I don't think it's going to be that easy for him to quit."

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