ONCE GIRLS START smoking, they find it's much harder to quit than they expect.
All the more reason they shouldn't start in the first place.
One-quarter of women ages 16 to 24 nationwide are smokers. Although 83 percent said they believe they can quit the habit, and 60 percent tried to quit in 2002, less than 3 percent succeeded in quitting smoking for at least one year.
The data are from two nationwide surveys by the American Legacy Foundation, paid for by tobacco industry settlement money. Other studies have shown that 90 percent of all adult smokers began smoking before they were 19 years old, and that girls may develop symptoms of dependence faster than boys - within a month of starting smoking.
Some 70 percent of adult smokers say they want to quit, too, and they have just as hard a time of it. Ex-smokers usually tried to quit eight to 11 times before they succeeded, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
This is critical, because tobacco-related illness is the leading cause of death of adult women. It is a lifestyle illness, not genetic or invasive, so the remedy must be social, not just medical.
That remedy includes programs such as the state's Smoking Stops Here and the city's Healthy People 2010, which drill into young heads that nicotine doesn't relieve stress but creates it through withdrawal symptoms, that smoking isn't the best weight-loss tool, that it damages growing lungs. In the national survey, nearly half the students had discussed in class why people smoke.
And girls know. The majority of young women - those who smoke and those who don't - disapprove of people their age who smoke and find them less attractive. Many want to be involved in efforts to get rid of smoking. But once they try it, experimenting, trying out a new identity, or just to fit in, they find it hard to shake loose of the habit. It takes a strong social network, and a lot of reinforcement, to beat it.
But in Baltimore, the numbers are encouraging, especially among the black majority. Just 12.4 percent of all public high school girls reported using cigarettes, and only 10.9 percent of black girls. Their parents and neighbors are improving, too; the percentage of black adults in Baltimore who smoke cigarettes fell to 24.6 last year from 33.5 percent in 2000. That's good news not just for them, but for their children, who get most of their secondhand smoke exposure at home.
What doesn't start can't continue. For boys and girls, that must include smoking.