She's Gotta Habit

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'Girls who smoke early are trying to be mature,' says one expert. 'They want to look cool and old.'

Most girls don't head for the cigarette machine after watching popular actresses like Winona Ryder and Julia Roberts light up on the screen. But it's not lost on them that for all the approbatory talk, smoking remains an accepted part of life--adult life. Stacked up against smoking's immediate allure, the prospect of long-term health risks doesn't seem to mean much.

"If smoking is so bad," Erin asks, "why is it that you can do it anywhere, and wherever you go there'll be older people smoking who are supposed to know better?"

Teens often see hypocrisy in adults' hectoring about smoking, a fact that helps explain why government and school-sponsored tobacco-prevention programs often prove ineffective. "Smoking provides an odd and appealing juxtaposition for young people," says William DeJong, a lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health. "It both allows them to flaunt adult authority and at the same time think they are acting more adult. Most institutionally based prevention programs don't address that."

Many public service ads and prevention programs try to discourage teenagers from smoking by warning them of the attendant health risks or portraying them as dupes of the tobacco industry. The teenagers often go away laughing or irked at what they see as hokey cliches and patronizing speeches. "It just doesn't affect me, hearing that I might get cancer in 20 or 40 years," one 15-year-old says. "And what I hate the most--it's just so annoying--is when adults keep telling you that you're just totally naive."

So by preaching, the best-laid anti-smoking plans can backfire. "Teenagers know that the anti-smoking ads they see and the rhetoric they hear is crafted by adults," says DeJong, who sits on the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Oversight Council. Since 1992, Massachusetts has spent about $30 million a year on smoking prevention, including school-based programs and newspaper and television ads. The result of that massive commitment has been that teenage smoking rates haven't climbed like the national averages, but they haven't dropped either. DeJong thinks the state needs to change the way it delivers its anti-smoking message. "Until kids who are at risk of smoking hear in a convincing way from kids who they think are cool, we may not see these programs having much of an impact," he says.

It's a July afternoon, and Aviva Stern and Jessica Paley, both 15, are walking the streets of Wellesley, Massachusetts, looking for a place to smoke. The girls have a few hours off from the summer enrichment program they are attending at Wellesley College. The program, called Explorations, lets only students who have declared themselves smokers on the first day use tobacco, and then only in a small, roped-off area of the campus known as the "pigpen." Aviva and Jessica enjoy hanging out there--"That's where I've met all my friends," Aviva says--but today they're tired of baking in the hot sun. So they've wandered away to find a quiet, shady spot where they can smoke off-campus.

Both girls are dressed in baggy painter's pants, close-fitting T-shirts, beaded chokers, and sneakers. Jessica, who goes to public school in Miami, wears her short, dark hair in two pink barrettes. Aviva, a soft-faced girl from Philadelphia, has a tiny gold stud in her nose and three matching gold balls in her left ear. While Jessica refers to herself as a "social smoker," Aviva smokes a pack a day.

Aviva started smoking a year ago during a summer stay at the New Jersey shore. "It was kind of like there was nothing else to do, so we just went to the park and smoked," she says. "If I'm jumpy or upset about something, smoking calms me down. And personally, I find it attractive. I mean, I'm not going to lie: Sometimes I think smoking makes me look better. And I guess this is pretty stupid of me, but if I see a guy smoking, I'll be more likely to go up and try to talk to him."

'That's one of the things smoking does—it brings us together.'

Jessica Paley,
15 years old

Back at the private Jewish high school she attends, Aviva cut back but kept smoking several cigarettes a day. Her parents, who both smoke, screamed and yelled when they found out, she says. Then they realized they couldn't stop her. "Now my mom's kind of like in denial," Aviva says. "She says, 'Just don't smoke in front of me because I don't want to know about it.'"

But Aviva does not hold her parents responsible for her behavior. "This is something I'm choosing to do," she says. Nor does she blame the media. "When I see a movie actress with a cigarette, I don't think, 'Oh look, she's smoking, so I should smoke,'" she says. "I just see it as normal. It's just like one of a person's traits, like some people have brown hair or blue eyes, and some people play soccer, and some people are smokers. It's just that I happen to think the smokers look better."

Aviva also rejects the notion that she's fallen prey to clever tobacco ads. "This whole thing about how bad Joe Camel is supposed to be for kids is just the dumbest," she says, rolling her eyes. "I smoke what tastes good to me, not because I like some dumb cartoon character. I mean, my brand is Marlboro, and their ads are supposed to be for men!"

As it turns out, Aviva and Jessica recently sat through a lecture on how images of smoking in advertising and the media influence teenagers. The summer program they are enrolled in required all smokers to attend. "They were trying to show how the tobacco companies lure children into smoking," Jessica explains.

"It was the stupidest thing I've ever seen," Aviva adds, rolling her eyes again. "You'd think that looking at ads would be kind of interesting, but these were all from the '80s. They were old and out-of-date and really, really boring."

Jessica agrees. "The woman who gave the lecture gave us all these statistics, but they didn't really mean anything," she says.

"It's just like at school, where all they do is pound in this message: 'SMOKING IS BAD FOR YOU,'" Aviva continues. "Like we didn't know all about that before we started."

Aviva says she's smoking more this summer than she did during the school year when she cut back to play on the soccer team. The pigpen, which is intended to be dirty and uninviting, has become a central--and desirable--place to hang out. "We're there all the time because that's where our friends are," Aviva says. "And I have to say that of all the people in this program, I think the smokers are the coolest."

"It's like when you get all pushed in together with these people, you really get to know them, even if they're different from you," Jessica says. "That's one of the things smoking does--it brings us together."

So, of course, do a lot of other activities, like playing on a soccer team, acting in a school play, or studying hard for finals. And in fact, girls who play sports or who do well in school are less likely to smoke than other girls. (Research, however, suggests girls who are successful in school are more likely to smoke than successful boys.)

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