Students get help kicking tobacco habit

Sleepover caps week for Owings Mills teens

April 10, 2001|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

They say it can be difficult to breathe, that their clothes and hair reek and that they hide their addiction from parents and teachers by puffing on ill-gotten cigarettes in their bedrooms or on "smoking corners" off-campus.

"I smoke three to four cigarettes a day," says Maria Bushee, 15, a ninth-grader at Owings Mills High School who has been smoking on and off since she was in elementary school.

Friends of Bushee -- ninth-graders Brandi Brown and Kayleigh Bomgardner -- say they share packs of Newport menthols. They estimate that no less than 70 percent of students at Owings Mills smoke -- especially when they are out with friends or at parties.

They know cigarettes are bad for their health and that it's illegal for anyone younger than 18 to purchase cigarettes or smoke them. Yet they can't kick the habit. So here they are, on a recent school night, gathered in the school's gym with 23 other nicotine addicts trying to resist their craving.

"I really want to quit," says Bomgardner, 14, who grew up in a neighborhood where older kids gave cigarettes to younger ones. "I've been smoking for two years, and it's not good for me. I feel bad because I smell like smoke."

The sleepover was part of a week-long event at Owings Mills called Kick Butts Week. Health teacher Cindy Wasserman has run the program, which ended Friday, for three years. She tried what she calls the "lock-in" for the first time this year to get student smokers together in a supportive atmosphere for 12 hours straight. Students who are trying to quit smoking are more likely to give in to nicotine cravings during the evening hours, she says.

"Most of them can go a short time, and then they cheat on it," Wasserman says. "Most of them don't see being able to do it, but by the time they spend the night and then go to school, they have gone at least 24 hours without smoking."

In the gym, about 50 students and four teachers keep busy with games of volleyball and basketball. A banquet table is loaded with sandwiches, chips, pretzels, licorice, pasta salad and gum -- a big hit, because it gives smokers the oral fix they need to stay away from cigarettes.

At about 10 p.m., several members of the Ravens football team show up to give the students a boost. Brandon Stokley, Chris Redman and Anthony Poindexter sign T-shirts and bare arms. They play some hoops and pose for photos.

In another corner of the gym, a band called Voodoo Blue plays.

During the week, students who were trying to kick the nicotine habit sported red wrist bands so that friends and teachers could spot them and give them support. Most of the peer mentors are members of Students Against Destructive Decisions. They helped organize the week with Wasserman.

They held a school assembly with a motivational speaker and a pizza party for smokers and their mentors. Sponsors for Kick Butts Week were the Towson Elks and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

At the end of the school year, Wasserman will check with smokers to see if they stayed off cigarettes. Some of them have asked to be peer mentors for next year's lock-in. "They thought it was very cool," she said of the all-night session. "It took me longer to recover than it did them."

Before they participate in Kick Butts Week, peer mentors receive training on how to deal with smokers, Wasserman says. They are expected to meet with their partners during the school day and to call them at night. Some of the mentors gave smokers baskets of candy and other treats to help them stay away from cigarettes.

"A lot of kids smoke," says mentor Irina Gold, 15, a 10th-grader at Owings Mills. "Some of them started when they were, like, 8 years old. To me that's kind of remarkable because they were still small children."

Gold and her friend, Stacy Vinokurov, 16, also a 10th-grader, decided to sign up to be peer mentors because they wanted to help. They know the pressures for teen-agers to smoke are huge. But so are the risks.

About 3,000 kids become regular smokers every day in this country, according to the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. Of those, about one-third will die prematurely because of tobacco-related illnesses.

"You're always hearing kids tell you, `Do you want to try it?'" Gold says. "They'll tell you, `It won't hurt one time.'"

That's the way Stephanie Bower, 14, says she started smoking -- but she stopped recently. She says she wanted to have control over her life and not feel the constant tug to light up.

"I see my mom, and if she doesn't have a cigarette she gets all mad," says Bower, a ninth-grader at Owings Mills. "I don't want to be mad."

Although some smokers who attended the lock-in said they thought their addiction might get the best of them, peer mentor Brian Barr, 15, a 10th-grader, said there's really no excuse not to stop.

"All four of my grandparents did smoke, and they all gave it up, so I don't really buy it," Barr says of the addiction excuse. "You have to be motivated to stop, and most of the people in [the gym] are, because of what smoking can do to you."

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