She's Gotta Habit

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Leaning back in her chair at a cafe near Harvard University, 18-year-old Erin Maguire pulls her fine blond hair into a ponytail, stretches her long legs, and crosses her arms over her chest. She is wearing a white halter top, flared jeans, and running sneakers. A cross hangs from a black cord around her neck; a delicate, blue tattoo encircles her upper left arm. She bears little resemblance to her younger self, the shy, gawky 13-year-old she is describing, the one who was scared to start high school in Newton, Massachusetts.

"I was a wicked late bloomer," Erin recalls. "Plus, I was always wearing these hand-me-down clothes from my cousin. People would say 'Why do you wear those boy's clothes all the time?' And I was a year younger than everyone else. It was a really hard time for me."

Then, on top of everything else, Erin's parents divorced. Although money was never really a problem--Erin's father teaches at Harvard, and her mother is a book critic--she felt out of place in Newton, one of Boston's better-off suburbs. "I had a fine life, but by Newton standards I was poor," she says. "I started to look for friends who were more like me, kids who lived rougher lives."

Those kids were smokers. And when a boy she liked handed her a cigarette on one of the last days of 8th grade, she didn't hesitate. "I remember a whole group of these people who were getting to be my close friends was hanging out by the bus stop," she says. "When this guy asked me if I wanted to smoke, I said, 'Sure,' without even thinking about it. Then, all of a sudden, I was sitting under a tree all dizzy, with everything swirling around me, and we were all laughing."

In the time it takes her to tell the story, Erin (the names of the teenagers in this article have been changed) has polished off a glass of cranberry juice and inhaled most of a cigarette. As she pauses to reflect, she raises what's left of the slender cylinder to her lips, sucks the smoke into her lungs, and exhales slowly.

"You know, when I was 13, it wasn't like smoking was something that all the kids I knew did," she says. "It was more like I wanted to shock people. My parents would say, 'Why are you hanging out with those bad kids?' And I just wanted to tell them that I was bad, too."

During the following summer, Erin and another friend regularly bought cigarettes and snuck down to a local stream to share them. By the winter of their first year of high school, both girls were two-pack-a-day smokers.

'I can't picture myself doing anything without smoking. It's like a piece of jewelry you always wear.'

Erin Maguire,
18 years old

Now, five years later, Erin wants to quit. She thinks smoking is a "nasty, filthy habit." She even raises money for the American Cancer Society. Still, she acknowledges that cigarettes eased her transformation from awkward to hip, and she can't imagine herself without them. "I hate to admit it, but a lot of what got me started was wanting to be cool and look older," she says. "It's true that when I started smoking, I started meeting more people. And it's also true that I didn't have any self-confidence until I started testing the waters and acting out. The thing is--and this is the insidious part--I can't picture myself doing anything, like walking down the street or sitting here in this cafe, without smoking. It's like a piece of jewelry you always wear, a prop that's become a part of me."

Erin is not alone. Although smoking rates have flattened for the general population, the number of teenagers who smoke is on the rise. This is true for both boys and girls, regardless of socioeconomic status, but it's particularly the case for young, white teenage girls. Girls, it seems, are resisting the country's anti-smoking frenzy and shrugging off the many taboos associated with cigarettes.

Consider the evidence. In 1991, an annual study conducted at the University of Michigan found that a smaller percentage of 8th grade girls said they had smoked in the past 30 days than did 8th grade boys. The difference was slight: 15.6 percent for boys to 13.1 percent for girls. Over the next five years, both these figures swelled, but the percentage of girls smoking jumped 8 percentage points while the figure for boys grew only 5 percentage points. The result: By 1996, the percentage of girls smoking topped the percentage of boys smoking, 21.1 to 20.6.

The University of Michigan study found an even bigger jump in the percentage of smokers among 10th grade girls. Between 1991 and 1996, that number climbed from 20.7 to 30.8 percent--this despite a significant drop in the number of African-American girls who smoke.

Meanwhile, a 1995 study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that non-Hispanic white girls were the most likely of all students in grades 9-12 to be smokers--with 39.8 percent saying they had smoked in the past month. They were also the most likely to be frequent smokers, with nearly 21 percent saying they had lit up on at least 20 of the previous 30 days.

The rising numbers of youngsters turning on to cigarettes worry health officials. Smokers who get hooked on cigarettes as teens are more likely to stay hooked--no matter how easy they think it will be to quit later. That's because the single best predictor for addiction, experts say, is the duration of a smoker's habit. Teenagers who smoke into adulthood have more trouble stopping simply because they started earlier. At the same time, those who grow up without cigarettes don't often pick up the habit later in life. "It's absolutely clear that if you can get a kid to the age of 21 without smoking, the chances that he or she will start are very small," says Jim Hyde, associate professor of family medicine and community health at Tufts University School of Medicine.

Thus teenage smokers like Erin are prime targets for a lifetime of tobacco addiction. Who are these girls, and why are they taking up a habit that they know carries numerous health risks? The reasons have important implications for school-related prevention efforts.

If the 20 teenagers interviewed for this article are any indication, girls smoke these days because they can think of more reasons to do it than reasons not to. Cigarettes provide needed swagger at parties and other social gatherings. They create an excuse to hang out with other kids who aren't afraid of bending or breaking the rules. Many girls believe cigarettes can help them diet--or can at least prevent them from gaining weight. But most of all, cigarettes are still perceived as cool, despite, or perhaps because of, all the attempts to convince teenagers otherwise.

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