Teen-agers are all talk, but it's better than smoking

September 16, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

Wonderful news from the health front, parents: If your teen-ager seems permanently connected to a cell phone and runs up astronomical bills that you end up paying because you're such a sap, this may actually be a good thing.

It may be keeping him or her from smoking.

This, at least, is a theory proposed by an anti-smoking group in England called Action on Smoking and Health (ASH).

The theory goes something like this: Teen-age smoking has declined since the mid-1990s, while cell phone use among young people has skyrocketed.

So more teens may be using cell phones the way they used to use cigarettes: as symbols of rebellion and maturity, for bonding with their pals, etc.

The ASH people in Britain stress there's no hard evidence to link declining teen smoking with cell phone use.

But ASH director Clive Bates said: "If some teen-agers cannot afford to smoke and pay for a [cell] phone, or they find that owning a [cell] phone satisfies the same needs as smoking, they may decide not to smoke."

Well. It's certainly an interesting theory.

I tried calling ASH in London, but it turned out to be 1 in the morning over there, a time when the Brits typically engage in any number of annoying activities, such as sleeping.

You have to wonder what's wrong with those people. Why can't they put in exhausting 20-hour workdays like we do here?

But John Banzhaf, executive director of ASH in Washington - which is not affiliated with the London chapter - said he, too, had heard the theory.

"It does make sense as a good hypothesis," he said. "The problem is, it's hard to test it."

Assuming there's something to the theory, we could be looking at a profound change in teen-age life.

Instead of seeing knots of sullen, disaffected youths puffing away on street corners across from schools, we might be seeing knots of sullen, disaffected youths on those same corners yakking away on their Nokias.

Oh, wait a minute ... my mistake. We're already seeing that now, aren't we?

Well, one thing that'll definitely change is this: If parents think cell phones might keep their kids from smoking, they'll start nagging their teens to talk more.

"Why can't you be more like Heather next door?" they'll say. "She's on her cell constantly. And you - you're not even close to using your 600 free anytime minutes.

"What's the matter with you? Don't you want to get anywhere in life?"

If we put aside the little matter of cigarettes causing lung cancer, emphysema, etc., I'm not sure which habit is worse for you from an economic standpoint.

Let's do the math here for a moment, shall we?

A pack of smokes - the cheap, off-brand ones, anyway - goes for around three and a half bucks at a convenience store, right?

So if a kid smokes a pack every other day, let's say, he's looking at shelling out roughly 14 bucks a week.

Or 56 bucks a month, all for the pleasure of having his breath and clothes stink, his fingers yellow and so on.

Now let's look at the typical cell phone bill for a teen-ager.

In fact, let's look at the typical cell phone bill for, oh, one of the teen-agers who lives with me.

The oldest one, the big-shot college student, pays $39.95 a month for his cell phone.

Of course, that's only for basic service. That doesn't count the long-distance and roaming charges he gets nailed for, now that he's used up his free minutes.

Or all the times his friends call him on his cell, which he also gets billed for.

That also doesn't count the upgraded phone he bought when he first signed on with the service.

Or the replacement phone he had to buy when he lost his original up-graded phone.

Or the second replacement phone he had to buy when he lost the first replacement phone.

Are you following me here?

Do you hear the same sounds I hear?

Do you hear: KA-CHING!? KA-CHING!?

Last week, I got a look at his latest cell phone bill - it gets mailed to the house, and I have absolutely no problem going through my kids' mail. In fact, in a sick way, I kind of enjoy it.

But this bill nearly brought me to my knees.

This bill came to ... well, I'm embarrassed to tell you how much it came to.

But it was a hell of a lot more than 40 bucks.

Way, way more than 40 bucks.

In fact, the next time I see him, I know exactly what I'm going to do.

I'm going to hand him the bill and say: "Why can't you be out smoking cigarettes like the other kids?"

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