I looked outside the fogged window one cold winter afternoon to see my 15-year-old brother smoking a cigarette. I couldn’t believe it. Was this the same kid who got upset when our father smoked, who told Mom “I don’t want to be around that”?
My Dad started smoking when he was seven. It was his way to relax and rebel. Now he’s so dependent he’d rather have cigarettes than food. And you can tell. His voice is deep and raspy and he coughs a lot. The smell, ashes and burn marks are everywhere.
I don’t want my brother to turn out like that. Then I noticed that all his friends were smoking, too. In fact, when they’re skateboarding in the street, rolling past one another with ease and showing off their new tricks, they also pass along a cigarette.
How many teens smoke, I wondered? Some 23 percent of high school students in the U.S. smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The rate is higher among teens like my brother and his friends, teens who are white and working class. Our dad smokes, and he can get cigarettes from him. His friends all think smoking is normal. Money’s tight in my neighborhood. My brother and his friends aren’t the best of students. And they would have a hard time saying no to a smoke.
All of that makes them more likely to smoke, even though they know it’s bad for them. Brian Boudreau, a sophomore at South High School in Minneapolis, says he started smoking when he was 12 because his friends did.
“I’m addicted now so I don’t see the harm in smoking a couple,” he said. “I’m sure I won’t be smoking for 30 years.”
All of his close friends smoke, he said. Researchers say that makes quitting harder. The longer teens smoke, University of Memphis researchers found, the more sources of cigarettes they get. And the more their circle of friends is limited to smokers.
“You try it out and it’s kind of addictive,” said Jamie Wanhala, another South sophomore. “You just don’t stop.”
The changes in teen tobacco use in Minnesota between 2000 and 2005 were dramatic. In 2000, one in three high school students smoked cigarettes. By 2005, it had fallen to about one in four high school students.
Researchers believe that one reason is because Minnesota spent millions on anti-tobacco programs and ad campaigns that specifically targeted youth. Funding came from the tobacco companies when they settled a lawsuit filed by the state of Minnesota.
In 1998, tobacco companies paid the state $6.1 billion to settle a lawsuit in which the state sought money to cover the cost of treating Minnesotans with tobacco-related health problems.
But in July 2003, the annual funding for Minnesota’s tobacco-control programs fell from $23.7 million to $4.6 million because Gov. Tim Pawlenty and the Minneosta Legislature decided to use the money to pay for other programs. As a result, Target Market, an anti-smoking ad campaign for youth ended.
Target Market’s budget was $6 million a year for tobacco prevention for teens, according to Andy Berndt, the program director of the Catalyst program, which now works with Minnesota teens to build opposition to smoking campaigns and tobacco companies.
Now, Blue Cross and Blue Shield, and the Minnesota Department of Health’s budget for teen smoking prevention is under $1 million.
Why was the budget cut for smoking prevention programs? “Tim Pawlenty took the money to balance the budget” in 2003, Berndt said.
Staring out the same kitchen window, I see my brother take another puff, but now he is not alone. His friends are with him and they pass the cigarette down the line. After listening to them talk about their experiences and life choices, I realized something about them, something more significant than my own opinion about smoking.
They are caught in their own trap, and they know it. They know that smoking had them ambushed but they haven’t figured out a way to escape. Smoking didn’t define who they were or the kind of people they hoped to be, but it controlled their repeated actions and time they could spend doing other things.
I don’t know why my brother smokes or what could have kept him from picking up the habit. But I wish the messages against it were louder, stronger and more frequent.