After Joe Camel Teen smoking: Programs this week seek to stop young people before they get hooked early.

March 17, 1998

WHILE CONGRESS and the courts continue to wrestle with the mammoth tobacco settlement, teen-age smoking puffs along. Despite the cigarette manufacturers' denials, evidence mounts that targeting youths has been a large part of their merchandising. That perhaps explains the community's enthusiasm for this year's Tobacco-Free Kids Week.

Despite laws against selling tobacco to minors, a lot of children are obtaining cigarettes. Of Maryland's 12th-graders, 54 percent say they have smoked; 26 percent of those are considered "regular smokers" because they consume at least a half-pack each day.

It is easy to see how these high-school seniors became regulars. They got hooked young. Indeed, most of those who smoke a half-pack or more a day said they started between ages 11 and 14. This may explain why R. J. Reynolds long ignored complaints about the cartoon character Joe Camel in its ads.

In Anne Arundel County, smoking among teens appears more prevalent than among adults. Last year, 27 percent of high school seniors said they smoked, compared with 19 percent of the general adult population. In sixth grade, most of whose students are 11 or 12, 16 percent of the students said they had smoked. That percentage almost triples by eighth grade. Even at that young age, novice smokers see the light and seek to quit, but one-fifth of middle-school smokers said they tried to kick the habit but couldn't.

In Baltimore and Harford counties, the figures are similar: about 13 percent of the eighth-graders have smoked, 40 percent of eighth-graders and 60 percent of seniors.

To help counter these trends, anti-smoking activities are planned this week. The Anne Arundel Health Department hopes a slate of anti-smoking activities will outdo last year, when 30,000 youngsters were reached during Tobacco-Free Kids Week. Merchants are requesting tobacco sales compliance kits.

They don't want to be caught selling to minors. (Liquor stores should take note, because survey respondents reported drinking alcohol underage even more than using tobacco.) If these stores and their employees make an effort to stop selling cigarettes to ++ young people, the celebration may extend beyond one week.

Pub Date: 3/17/98

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