“I smoked in my car, and now it smells,” my friend says. He hugs me, and I catch a whiff of it—the dirty cigarette scent I associate with city streets. It’s a weird mix with his cologne, one that seems even weirder on the body of someone I’ve known since eighth grade. Like me, he has grown up in small town suburbia; we have sat together through health classes and drug education programs. So “why,” I ask him. Why does he continue to smoke tobacco, an act which, according to the Center for Disease Control, drastically increases the risk of cancer, strokes, and heart disease?
“I don’t know,” he says and shrugs. “It always just seemed kind of sophisticated.”
I stare at him. “That’s it?”
He nods, stares at the ground, and says nothing.
While the percentage of American adults who smoke has decreased dramatically—from about 42% of the population in 1965 to 18% in 2012, according to the American Cancer Association– some smokers still have yet to get the message. A 2013 survey by the US Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration revealed that 13.4 million Americans still smoke cigars, and 2.5 million smoke tobacco in pipes. Tack on another 9 million who use smokeless or spit tobacco, and you’ve got something close to a national crisis. Also troubling is the rise of electronic cigarettes, known as “e-cigs”, which, according to the Center for Disease Control, have not decreased overall disease risk among smokers. Yes, smoking is less of an issue than it once was. But it’s still not an issue we can readily forget about.
A survey at my local high school—the ninth best school in the state, according to US News and World Report—found that 48% of seniors engaged in drug use “multiple times” over the weeks right before the survey was conducted. While that 48% includes users of marijuana, LSD, and other drugs, the American Cancer Society reports that nearly one in seven high schoolers falls under the category of a current smoker, and 23% of high school boys and 18% of high school girls smoke. Yet, the American Cancer Society, the Center for Disease Control, and even the White House agree that the solution to smoking is education.
But what do you do in a town like mine, where students who take mandatory wellness classes and participate in a Drug Abuse Resistance Education program as early as third grade still continue to light up?
“The problem isn’t a lack of education,” a classmate theorizes to me. “It’s kids just ignoring what they’ve been told.”
The kids who smoke in my town, or at least the ones I know, do not fit the mould of stereotypical teenage drug users. They consistently make High Honor Roll, they load up on AP courses, and they’re preparing to attend some of the most renowned colleges in the country. These are not so-called lazy kids—which makes their decision to smoke seem all the more baffling.
“I would never actually smoke,” another friend tells me. “But yeah, e-cigs are really fun when you’re drunk.”
I ask him if he knows about the health effects, but, like my other friend, he shakes me off and tries to change the subject. “I’m fine,” he finally says after I press him on it. “It’s just a once in a while thing. I can take care of myself.”
Which does not sound like much of a defense.
My friend tells me he will buy air freshener for his car like a spritz or two of Febreeze. He claims that way his parents will never know his latest habit. Yet still trying to understand why he would do something this stupid, I blurt out, “You realize this is just slow suicide, right?”
He looks at me, almost out of pity, and shrugs again. “So what?”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. QuickStats: Number of Deaths from 10 Leading Causes—National Vital Statistics System, United States, 2010. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report 2013:62(08);155. [accessed 2014 Feb 6].
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Reducing the Health Consequences of Smoking: 25 Years of Progress. A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville (MD): U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 1989 [accessed 2014 Feb 6].
American Cancer Society. Cancer Facts & Figures 2014. Atlanta, Ga: American Cancer Society; 2014.