Tobacco and the College-Bound in the New Millennium

Tobacco and the College-Bound in the New Millennium

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Tobacco and the College-Bound in the New Millennium

Today’s high school and college age Americans will have to deal with the actions and attitudes of those involved in the current debate over tobacco use in America. As today’s and tomorrow’s smokers and non-smokers, we need to understand that aspects of our future are being decided now. What is at risk? Primarily at risk are two things: first, our health and welfare and that of our friends and loved ones, and second, individual liberty.

Risks to Health and Welfare

The negative health effects of smoking and other tobacco use are well known and documented by nearly every health-conscious organization in the United States. Cancer, heart disease, and most major pulmonary diseases top the list of the most painful and deadly reasons to quit and not to start. It’s estimated that more than one in six deaths in the United States is due to cigarettes alone. More than three million people die every year worldwide from smoking related diseases (Pringle, 44). Besides the mortality statistics are the millions of additional colds, canker sores, cases of chronic bronchitis and incredibly bad breath.

Tobacco use is also incredibly financially taxing. Smoking just half a pack a day will cost over five hundred dollars a year if the smoker uses one of the most popular brands, and most young smokers do. Add to that national annual health care costs and lost work revenues totaling seventy billion dollars ($70,000,000,000), and damages from the 38% of accidental fires attributed to cigarettes, and the life-long cost of smoking is easily in the hundreds of thousands of dollars per American smoker (Pringle, 44).

Besides the problems smokers cause for themselves, there are others to consider. Exposure to environmental tobacco smoke (ETS), otherwise known as second-hand smoke, is not a significant risk for someone who is only exposed to a couple of hours a week in a neighborhood restaurant. It is, however, dangerous to family and friends who may allow themselves to be exposed for many hours a day so as not to inconvenience a smoker.

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The Environmental Protection Agency has estimated deaths in the United States due to ETS exposure to be over fifty thousand annually.

A Uniquely Young Problem

Smoking, snuff, and chewing tobacco are becoming more popular among high school students and college age adults, while the number of older tobacco users decreases every year (Lang and Marks, 12). Why is this? Teens and young adults start smoking cigarettes or using other tobacco products for purely psychological reasons. These include curiosity, rebelliousness and peer pressure. These youth haven’t had the life experience necessary to understand their simultaneous attempt at individuality and conformity; they only know they want control of their lives and see tobacco use as a means to that end.

In addition, unlike older potential users, young people have a feeling of invulnerability. They feel that by the time smoking will pose a real threat to their health, they will have already quit. Only five percent of high school seniors who smoked believed they would still be smoking five years later according to a survey done in 1986. The follow-up study done in 1992 showed that seventy-five percent were still smoking (Kranz, 10).

Advertising by tobacco companies seems to reflect an understanding, and manipulation, of these core reasons. Statistics show a relationship between advertising by tobacco companies and an increase in youth smoking. For instance, when cigarette promotion budgets increased 16% in 1991, 1992 showed the first significant increase in teen smoking in fifteen years (Williams, 73).

Tobacco advertising is not the whole equation, however. Other factors are at least as important, and more difficult to deal with. When young people begin to feel a need to invent a distinct personality for themselves, they inevitably borrow from people they admire. Parents, friends, actors and the characters they play in movies or TV shows. All of these provide templates for a young person’s self-image. When Sylvester Stalone lights a cigarette, a young man with a desire to look tough says to himself “maybe if I smoked…” When a high-school friend lights up a clove cigarette as they drive away from her parents’ house and says, while laughing, “yeah, mom and dad would kill me if they found out I was smoking,” a young woman who feels she has no control over her life says to herself “maybe if I smoked…” When a boy’s father puffs away on a cigar in the study because he got a promotion at work, the boy associates the cigar with reward and develops a positive association with tobacco in his mind.

Though individual statistics may surprise the average young adult, it is no surprise to youth that tobacco use is harmful to human health and welfare. They hear it every day. Yet they smoke, dip, and chew anyway. Even youth widely considered to be intelligent, ‘logically-minded,’ or ‘wise beyond their years’ choose to smoke knowing they will probably regret it.

…Still Hooked?

Why is it, then, if young people never intend to continue smoking, they don’t seem to stick to the plan. This seems simple at first. Tobacco products are effective delivery devices for nicotine, a chemical that has been shown to have many pleasant and even useful physiological effects. It stimulates the production of hormones that simultaneously relax and stimulate the body. Nicotine is the chemical responsible for the euphoria experienced while smoking. Nicotine is also believed to have a calming effect and even to increase mental acuity.

Nicotine is also addictive. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nicotine is more chemically addictive than heroine (Kranz, 9). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates the sale and use of nicotine in all forms and in all products except tobacco products. The FDA does this because it recognizes nicotine as an addictive and toxic substance (Williams, 34).

Chemical addiction is not the only answer, however. If it were, nicotine replacement therapies such as nicotine gum and nicotine patches should be the only strategy required in order to stop using tobacco. Less than fifteen percent of patch users succeed in quitting, though they probably suffer less while trying (Williams, 39).

Another simple answer is that many people enjoy using tobacco products. When tobacco company executives assert that smokers don’t smoke because of addiction, they aren’t lying; they’re just exaggerating. Smoking in particular is an intensely pleasant experience. Most smokers, even the ones who want to quit, thoroughly enjoy smoking. I should know; I have smoked for almost five years and tried to quit twice. Physiologically and psychologically, smoking addresses the immediate needs of a smoker in a wide variety of circumstances. The morning cigarette wakes many smokers up. I don’t need a scientific study to show me that a cigarette can calm or focus me when I’m angry or tense. Smoking occupies us when we’re are bored, forces us to take a break when we push too hard, and takes the edge off of hunger pangs. Whether or not it is worth the ultimate consequences, tobacco use has its upsides.

Unless the user has changed significantly from the time he began using tobacco, he most likely still considers the reasons he started using tobacco in the first place valid, even if he only vaguely understands this on a conscious level. For instance, I started smoking cigarettes because my high school buddies smoked and I felt a need to emulate them. I still feel that need when I hang out with those same buddies.

Before tobacco was considered chemically addictive, it was just called ‘habit forming.’ This explanation is still quite valid. Many smokers use cigarettes to wake them up in the morning, wind them down at night, and to calm down and pass the time whenever they drive somewhere in the car, among many other instances. When you do something that predictably every day, even if for only a few months, it becomes a pretty strong habit, regardless of chemical addictiveness.

…For Our Own Good?

The largest threat posed to youth today and in the near future by the controversy over tobacco is not a threat to our health, the health of our friends and relatives, or the size of our pocket books. The largest threat is posed to the individual liberty of every American, young or old, smoker or non-smoker.

In an attempt to save us from ourselves, anti-tobacco partisans have pushed for bans on the advertising and public use of tobacco products. The mayor of Friendship Heights, Md., for example, succeeded in making the entire city a no-smoking zone. No one may light a cigar, cigarette, or pipe on any city streets, sidewalks, or parks (Williams, 136). Efforts like this infringe on the rights of adults to make decisions regarding our own lifestyles, and they are the precursor to an oncoming storm of legislation designed to put tobacco in the same category as crack or heroine.

Even passive efforts to reduce smoking are having adverse effects. In the debate between smoker's rights advocates, most notably tobacco companies, and organizations and agencies intent on making America a smoke-free nation the truth is apparently an outdated concept. Health organizations and anti-smoking partisan groups reason that if ad campaigns by the tobacco companies that avoid factual statements and simply make implications work so well for the tobacco industry, they can be used against it. In other words, instead of using logic to tell us not to smoke, these groups use the same shady tactics of implication and subtle suggestion that the tobacco companies do.

Who will have to deal with the social and legal consequences of this barrage of lies, false implications and questionable science? We will. We have the resources to be important to the tobacco industry, namely cash, but don't have the life experience to understand that smoking isn't necessary to assert our individuality and personal rights. We live in American society but aren’t yet able to defend the legal rights which that society is rolling over in its attempt to save us from ourselves.

While ending or curtailing the use of tobacco products may be a worthwhile goal, doing so at the expense of our right as individuals to decide what we do with our time, money, and property is not an acceptable means to that goal. Admittedly, the right to some actions, such as indiscriminately gunning people down in the street or setting fire to flaming bags of dog excrement, are worth sacrificing for the benefit of society as a whole, but what proverbial line in the sand is not worth crossing? Heroine is an illicit drug. Marijuana is an illicit drug. Should tobacco be an illicit drug? Caffeine? Ask a high school teacher whether coffee should be on the list of unacceptable behaviors. Perhaps a certain percentage of sugar should be illegal? Politely ask a police officer whether Twinkies or donuts should be on that list. Down with Juan Valdes. Down with the evil snack-food industry.

Works Cited

Pringle, Laurence. Smoking: a risky business. New York: Morrow Junior Books, 1996.

Kranz, Rachel. Straight Talk About Smoking. New York: Facts on File, 1999.

Lang, Susan S, and Beth Marks. Teens and tobacco: a fatal attraction. New York:
Twenty-First Century Books, 1996.

Wekesser, Carol, et al. Smoking. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1997.

Williams, Mary E, et al. Tobacco and smoking: opposing viewpoints. San Diego:
Greenhaven Press, 1998.

Lynch, Barbara S, and Richard Bonnie. Growing up tobacco free: preventing nicotine
addiction in children. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1994.

O’Hagan, Maureen. “Health Concerns Spark Smoking Ban in Md. Prisons.”
The Washington Post; 5 April 2001: T04

Livni, Ephrat. “Selling Teens on Truth.” 001020.html
(5 March 2001)

Schorr, Melissa. “Carcinogens on Campus.”
(5 March 2001)

Neergaard, Lauran. “College Smoking on the Rise.”
(5 March 2001)

Somers, Terri. “Tobacco firms don’t owe flight attendant money, jury rules.”
South Florida Sentinel; 5 April 2001: K2730
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