Kids and Coffin Nails

September 17, 1994|By PATRICK ERCOLANO

I grew up under a cloud -- literally a dirty cloud of cigarette smoke produced by my father's incessant puffing of Pall Malls. The man smoked all of North Carolina. And our living room looked like downtown Pittsburgh.

You better believe that my three brothers and I never wanted any part of tobacco. We didn't need to be swayed by the health trends and grim medical warnings of the past three decades. We've known first-hand, from so much second-hand inhaling, that smoking is a filthy habit that harms not only the smoker but also the people around him.

My dad knew this, too. Still, he couldn't stop until he did what many addicts are forced to do: He quit cold-turkey. He did it 10 years ago, after 50 years of having a coffin nail hanging from his lips. A photo of a deceased smoker's tar-covered lungs put the fear of Philip Morris in him.

It amazes me that my father started smoking before he reached his teens. But apparently he wasn't so far ahead of the curve. The average smoker is said to have picked up the habit at 13. Some start even earlier, as in Baltimore County, where cigarette smoking is increasingly the vice of choice among students, including 10- and 11-year-olds, says Michael M. Gimbel, director of the county's Office of Substance Abuse.

A 17-year-old student at Baltimore County's Dulaney High School recently made headlines for smoking. Last week, at the end of his first day of classes, Jason D'Anna lighted a cigarette as he drove off the Dulaney parking lot. An assistant principal stopped Jason and told him he had violated the county school system's anti-smoking regulations.

Jason -- who had one earlier smoking offense, as a freshman -- was further informed he had broken a new Maryland law prohibiting minors from possessing tobacco products, though the law won't take effect until October 1. Dulaney officials have reportedly stated that students who violate the new statute could be arrested if they don't attend a smoking-cessation class or accept a one-day suspension, the two forms of discipline for county students who are caught smoking.

Drafted by Governor Schaefer's administration, the law was passed by the General Assembly last April. The governor's aim was to reduce Maryland's alarmingly high cancer rate by doing something to discourage teens from smoking. (Mr. Schaefer also advocated a cigarette tax earlier this year as a way to make smoking too pricey for most kids. That proposal failed.)

Credit the governor for responding to the mounting evidence of the physical and fiscal hazards of smoking. Yet most experts, from the police to the American Cancer Society to Mr. Gimbel, believe minors shouldn't be made to feel like criminals for tobacco possession. Besides, police have concerns more pressing than some 14-year-old who sneaked a pack of Luckies into algebra class.

Scientists from the Institute of Medicine took the same view in testimony to Congress this week. Presenting their study ''Growing Up Tobacco Free: Preventing Nicotine Addiction in Children and Youths,'' the scientists argued that putting the legal burden on teen smokers is misguided. Strong measures of another sort are needed, they said. For example, raising the federal cigarette tax from 24 cents to $2 a pack. Licensing merchants who sell tobacco and suspending them for selling it to minors. Letting states outlaw billboards and other advertising that makes smoking attractive to kids. Banning cigarette-vending machines.

Any of these ideas would face serious political obstacles. In the ,, meantime, educators could start giving cigarettes equal time with marijuana, LSD, alcohol and inhalants in school awareness programs, and consider adding smoking to the list of reasons for expulsion.

The three-hour smoking-cessation class Jason D'Anna might take was introduced two years ago at Dulaney by the Office of Substance Abuse. Since then, other Baltimore County schools have begun to offer the program. Some students take the class not because they have committed a tobacco violation but simply because they want to quit smoking.

Cigarette smoking by teens and pre-teens is, in Mr. Gimbel's words, ''going through the roof right now.'' Parents, school officials, medical groups and other concerned parties need to study the reasons for this development and then take sensible but forceful steps to help kids break the habit.

Better now than 50 years down the road, when it may be too late for them to learn what a lifetime of smoking can do to their lungs.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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