More Md. children are using tobacco Nicotine use is seen as 'gateway' to other mood-altering drugs

August 24, 1996|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Diana K. Sugg, Jonathan Bor, Kaana Smith and Erin Texeira contributed to this article.

On the front lines of the drug war, they say the worst enemy is a plant that is grown, marketed and sold legally -- except when it is sold to children.

"In my view, tobacco is the gateway drug," said Joanne M. Hayes, who coordinates drug prevention in Carroll County schools.

State and national figures show more children, and younger children, are dangerously close to the gate: Use of tobacco, alcohol and other illicit drugs is on the rise.

"[Tobacco] teaches kids how to get illegal drugs, it teaches them how to hide their behavior, how to inhale drugs to get a mood swing, how to deny what they've been taught since kindergarten about how unsafe tobacco is, and how to disrespect laws," Hayes said.

Statewide, almost 30 percent of high school seniors report they smoke. In some Western Maryland counties and in parts of the Eastern Shore, nearly half do. Among sixth-graders, 5.4 percent reported smoking within the previous 30 days, according to figures from a state survey in 1994, the latest available.

President Clinton announced yesterday that the U.S. government will treat tobacco as a drug; the Food and Drug Administration intends to restrict marketing and sales to reduce the number of teens who smoke or chew tobacco.

A few days earlier, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a national survey that found that adolescent use of illicit drugs had doubled, from 5.3 percent in 1992 to 10.9 percent in 1995 for those ages 12 to 17.

A biennial survey of Maryland youth found they're no different from their peers nationwide. Teens here report they are drinking, smoking, injecting and snorting more than in 1992 -- and they're starting younger.

Although the HHS drug survey received wide attention, it's harder to get the public as riled about cigarettes, said Hayes.

Her county, Carroll, had the highest rate of youth smoking statewide. In 1994, 45.7 percent of high school seniors reported smoking, compared with that year's average of 29.9 percent statewide.

The proposed regulations, Hayes said, are a start. "There is no simple answer to this issue. If we knew where the marker is where [children are] crossing the line, we'd all be lined up there," she said.

Maryland Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. was at the White House yesterday as Clinton made the announcement. Curran said the marketing restrictions the president seeks are the same kind Maryland is asking for in its suit against the six major tobacco companies and their marketing organizations. The suit also seeks $13 billion in medical payments for the millions of Marylanders who have died of smoking-related diseases.

"We believe tobacco is a gateway drug, and that is part of our case," Curran said.

"Of the people who smoke, 90 percent will say they started as minors," he said, citing federal statistics.

"Very few adults wait until they are 20 or 30 or 40, say, 'Gee, I'll start smoking.' By then, they're mature and know the dangers," Curran said.

"When you're young, you have nothing to fear. You're healthy. You think, 'Nothing can stop me.' Tragically, tobacco companies appeal to that sense of invulnerability," he said.

And it takes a while for smoking to do its damage.

Smoking-related diseases kill 7,300 Marylanders a year, said Curran, citing figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"That's more than homicides, suicides, accidents, drug overdoses, alcohol-related deaths and AIDS, all put together," he said.

In Maryland anyone under 18 can be cited for possession of cigarettes, and it is illegal for merchants to sell to minors, but there is little enforcement or oversight.

Smoking among Maryland youngsters in grades six, eight and 10 increased from 1992 to 1994. Dr. Martin P. Wasserman, state health secretary, said the tobacco industry recruits 3,000 children a day -- including 50 in Maryland.

"Those statistics are appalling," Wasserman said, "especially when we consider that high smoking rates among teen-agers lead to high smoking rates among adults."

A small drop in smoking occurred among 12th-graders, from 31.5 percent in 1992 to 29.9 percent in 1994, but that doesn't reassure health officials. "We're really nervous about the fact that kids are smoking earlier and they're getting addicted earlier," said Glenn Schneider, federal project director for tobacco use prevention in the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said Maryland has started a number of programs designed to build character in teen-agers and keep schools free of drug, alcohol and tobacco use.

"Clearly some of the programs may not work as well as we would like, but we can't expect to inoculate them [teens] with this message when they get a mixed message from the mass media," Townsend said.

The excessive presence of drugs and alcohol in music, movies and television blinds youths to the dangers, she said. Statistics showing the rise of drug use mirror figures showing that teens increasingly perceive drugs as harmless, she said.

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