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Kicking The Habit

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While most students at the Boca Raton, Fla., school spend the first 20 minutes of each day in advisory-group meetings, this handful of 7th and 8th graders tromps down to a conference room next to the principal's office for the daily Hi! IQ support-group meeting. Sort of a cross between a 12-step program and a Scout troop, the club exists to help these still-growing children break their grown-up habit.

Sounding like addicts of harder drugs, the youngsters talk about nicotine's stranglehold and discuss the aches and pains of quitting. Indeed, many suffer from shortness of breath and hacking coughs; some complain that they can't jog or swim as far as they once could. The talk is disturbing, but what is even more troubling is that at this very minute, across campus, a group of 6th graders is taking part in its own Hi! IQ session. And they're only 11.

While the Loggers' Run program is unusual, the problem it's addressing isn't. Two out of every three adolescents have smoked tobacco by the time they turn 18, and one out of three are regular smokers by that age, according to the 1994 U.S. Surgeon General's report Preventing Tobacco Use Among Young People. Federal data show that 31 percent of high school seniors who have ever smoked first tried it by the time they reached 6th grade; 61 percent had smoked by the 8th grade.

Since cigarette smoking is the chief cause of preventable premature disease and death in the United States, most schools focus their efforts on trying to keep kids from ever starting. Few, however, offer programs to help students who are already hooked quit.

In a grassy area behind Loggers' Run Middle School, on a bend in a quiet suburban street within sight of a handful of homes, empty cigarette packs lie crumpled on the ground. Smoking is verboten on school property, so students come here, just beyond the chain-link fence, when they want to light up.

Over the years, Juanita Lampi periodically received phone calls from neighbors and parents complaining about the young smokers congregating here. But this past fall, she got one call too many and decided to take action. At first, the principal considered videotaping the students and showing the tape to their parents. But then she had another thought. Instead of trying to catch and punish the smokers, why not do something to help them stop.

When she first created the voluntary club, Lampi wasn't sure anyone would show up. She was pleasantly surprised. Not only did students come, but they also kept coming. To make sure the students were sincere about their desire to quit--another of the club's ground rules--Lampi had each prospective member draft a letter stating why he or she wanted to join. 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 had a name. Lampi liked "Hi! IQ'' when she hit on it because it has a positive connotation. "It means, 'Yeah, you're smart; you want to quit smoking,' '' she explains. She thinks the voluntary nature of the program is the key to its 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. If I can get them in the habit of breaking the habit, they'll know they can have power over it.''

At this Monday morning meeting, Lampi asks how many club members were able to go all weekend without smoking. Of the 17 students in the room, 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 a board at the back of the room that lists "quitters'' and those "still trying.'' The quitters total nine: eight students and a school receptionist. Fifteen names are on the "trying'' list. "When you smoke,'' Lampi asks the students, "do you think about the fact that you are not supposed to be doing it?'' Self-conscious smiles appear around the table.

Lampi does her best to be supportive rather than judgmental. "I'm really, truly trying to show them I care enough about them to take the time to help them quit,'' she explains later. What she's not trying to do, she says, is "make them feel guilty about it or punish them in the process.''

When asked why they started to smoke in the first place, several students say they were simply curious; they wanted to see "why everyone did it'' or "how it would taste.'' Others say they got into smoking because they saw brothers and sisters doing it. About half have parents who smoke.

Brian Nagle says he picked up the habit so he'd have something to do. "I felt bored,'' he says. 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 hard part comes on the way to school each morning. She walks with a friend who smokes, and it's tough to keep from joining in. Brian Brady, also 14, says he craves a smoke after lunch, but for classmate Evie Joy Trombley, it's the 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 spends all of her money on cigarettes, says she sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night needing a smoke.

Everyone in the room, though, has at least one thing in common: the desire to quit. "I'm afraid I'm gonna die,'' Brian Brady says. "I never thought I could get addicted.''

Lampi believes the teenagers who are most apt to smoke are "those kids who perceive themselves as older and more mature than their peer group.'' That attitude, she says, makes them "more prone to experiment with so-called 'adult behaviors.' ''

Mary Osgood, the mathematics teacher who has run the 6th grade Hi! IQ Club since its inception this winter, has a little different take on why youngsters turn to cigarettes: She believes it's stress. The kids tell her they smoke when they encounter conflict and frustration. "They say a cigarette calms them down,'' she says.

A former social smoker who is now a health-conscious athlete, Osgood tries to encourage alternative--more appropriate--behaviors, such as calling up a friend, punching a pillow, or counting to 10.

Dennis Johnston, a well-mannered 7th grader, has had firsthand experience with the most devastating consequences of smoking. His father, a longtime smoker, died last year of lung and kidney cancer at age 41. But even that wasn't enough to get Dennis to quit. It wasn't until he started sitting in on club meetings this past fall that he found the strength to stop. Without the club, he admits, "I'd still be smoking--definitely.''

According to the Surgeon General's report, research on school-based cessation programs indicates that they are often unsuccessful. But Lampi and others at the school are not discouraged by the pessimistic finding. All of the programs cited in the report involved high school--not middle school--students, and some involved students who were referred involuntarily. What's more, the programs examined met much less frequently than the daily meetings at Loggers' Run.

Brian Brady's mother, Donna, an office assistant at the Florida school, thinks it's crucial to reach out to students like her son who are already addicted. "I just wish they'd continue something like this in high school,'' says Brady, who is a smoker herself. "I don't think it's going to be that easy for Brian to quit.''

Still, she holds out hope that the club will help him stop. "Every day they go, they're thinking about it,'' she says.

--Millicent Lawton

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