Tobacco taking fresh toll on teens

April 27, 1993|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff writer

Before he could drive, shave or date, Jason Maxwell felt like an adult in one way: He smoked cigarettes.

But what began as a lark for a 12-year-old has become a two-pack-a-day, $1,500-a-year habit.

"I'm addicted," says Jason, a senior at Dulaney High School, as a Marlboro dangles from his fingers. "I tried to quit New Year's Eve. That lasted a day and a half. I got so mad that I started hitting a vending machine because it wouldn't give me cigarettes."

Jason Maxwell belongs to a new breed of smokers. Lured by sophisticated advertising and lax enforcement of laws forbidding the sale of tobacco to minors, the younger generation is taking to nicotine, despite the highly publicized health risks.

Cheaper prices -- such as those announced yesterday by R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. on its Camel and Winston brands to match Philip Morris Cos.' discounts on Marlboro -- make cigarettes even more accessible.

This generation was born long after the surgeon general warned about the dangers of smoking in 1964. They were taught in school to avoid tobacco. And they live in a world that's increasingly intolerant of lighting up. But that hasn't stopped young people from inhaling a substance blamed for 500,000 deaths a year in the United States.

Three million Americans between the ages of 12 and 18 -- or nearly 16 percent of the youth population -- smoke, according to the U.S. Office on Smoking and Health in Atlanta.

Although the number of adult smokers has declined significantly in the last decade, young people are taking up smoking at about the same rate as they did 10 years ago. In some states -- including Maryland -- the numbers are on the rise.

According to the 1990 Maryland Adolescent Survey Report, 27 percent of public high school seniors in the state smoke, compared to 23 percent in 1986.

Starting younger

And the news gets worse: They're starting younger.

Half of all young smokers in Maryland try their first cigarette between the ages of 10 and 11, according to the report. In 1982, the age was 12 1/2 .

"Young kids think they're immortal," says Robert Bezilla, director of the Gallup Youth Survey in New Jersey. "You can show a young person a drunk teen-age driver who gets killed in a car accident. Or you can read about a Len Bias who has a drug overdose and dies. But it's hard for these kids to envision themselves having lung cancer when they're 62 years old."

Alarmed by the trend, Mr. Bezilla recently conducted Gallup's first-ever youth survey of teen attitudes and behavior toward tobacco. Released this month, the study found:

* The average teen smoker has eight cigarettes a day.

* Sixty-five percent come from households where someone else smokes.

* And nearly 75 percent say it's very easy or fairly easy to get cigarettes in their community.

According to the U.S. Office on Smoking and Health, 80 percent of young smokers buy status brands such as Marlboro, Camel and Newport. But they're also bargain shoppers who will travel extra miles for a discount, and celebrate when R. J. Reynolds and Philip Morris lower prices as they did recently.

While generic brands are not always their favorites, teens say they'll do in a pinch.

"The generic brands are the gateway cigarettes for many kids. They allow kids to get hooked and then shift to higher-priced brands," says Jim Bergman, executive director of Stop Teen-age Addiction to Tobacco, a non-profit group based in Massachusetts.

Why teens develop this potentially fatal attraction is hotly debated by health professionals, the tobacco industry and youths themselves.

Advertising blamed

Anti-smoking forces blame advertising. They say tobacco companies must replenish the more than one million smokers who annually quit or die with younger ones.

"Ninety percent of smokers have their first cigarette before the age of 19. If you're going to get a new crop of smokers, you need to get them young," says Dr. Michael Eriksen, director of the U.S. Office on Smoking and Health.

He and other anti-tobacco groups say cigarette companies attract young people by using cartoon characters like Joe Camel and cowboys like the Marlboro Man. But even more disturbing to them are Green Stamp-like promotions that have smokers trading in coupons from cigarette packs for products.

In recent months, Marlboro has begun an "Adventure Team" campaign where smokers accumulate "miles" -- bar codes from packs actually -- and trade them in for sweat shirts, caps and beach towels. Smokers of Virginia Slims can save proofs of purchase for V-Wear, a line of clothing and accessories. And Camel has its counterpart: "Camel Cash."

"These are incentives for brand loyalty. They're a way of rewarding customers for choosing our cigarette . . . And our customers are adults," says Sheila Banks-McKenzie, director of media affairs for Philip Morris.

Mark Crispin Miller, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who studies and lectures about cigarette advertising, disagrees.

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