Friendship means many things to different people, but a common feature of friendship is sharing, especially among young people. They share confidences, clothing, catastrophes … and cigarettes. In fact, the major sources of tobacco for young people are friends or family.
“Almost all underage smokers admit that someone else gave them tobacco or purchased it for them,” says Nathan Read of Shasta County Public Health, “Older teen smokers buy for their younger friends and younger smokers share with their peers.” In spite of laws prohibiting it, an adult is almost always the original source of the tobacco for minors. Once the underage smoker has a tobacco product, it will inevitably be shared with a number of other teens; consequently, the provider of the tobacco has not provided an illegal substance to one teen only, but to that teen’s entire social circle.
In a 2007 Public Health survey on tobacco use behaviors of Shasta County high school students, 67 percent of student smokers report obtaining tobacco from a friend. Almost 90 percent of these students also say they share tobacco products with a friend, boyfriend, or girlfriend, making “social sources” the major means of obtaining tobacco for teens. Social sources not only provide tobacco for teen smokers, they contribute to a teen’s desire to smoke. A young person’s likelihood of smoking is heavily influenced by the number of friends who smoke. Unsurprisingly, a recent Youth Tobacco Survey indicated that 94 percent of teen smokers have smokers for friends.
This school year, Shasta County Public Health’s Tobacco Education Program has spent its time in area high schools, focusing efforts on discouraging shared tobacco products through its “Friends Don’t Give Friends Cancer” project. “Kick Butts Day” on March 24 provided local high schools an opportunity to join a nationwide effort to speak out against Big Tobacco and spread the word that sharing tobacco products does your friends no favors. Shasta, Oasis, Enterprise, and Foothill High Schools sponsored poster contests with the theme “Friends Don’t give Friends Cancer.” Freshman students in Personal Growth classes completed a websearch quiz of the educational “Don’t Buy the Lies” website (www.dontbuythelies.org). The website was designed to provide students with information about tobacco’s harmful effects on their bodies and lives and to familiarize them with refusal tactics and messages to utilize in the face of peer pressure.
The website also allows students to create their own messages to send to tobacco companies, resulting in some heart-rending messages. For example:
Jennifer, 14: I hate tobacco. It killed my aunt, grandma, great-grandma and my mom’s stepmom.
Matt, 14: Tobacco, you are horrible people, you kill for money. How do you sleep at night knowing that each day you kill thousands of people? In my opinion all of you should be sent to rot in jail till you die because you have killed thousands.
Thomas, 14: I do not wish to die by nicotine. My grandfather smoked all his life and he died of heart, liver, pancreatic, and lung cancer. Obviously the right choice would be not to take your cigarettes. My other grandfather has been to many hospitals just so he can live! You might say that was his choice, but it was your choice to sell them.
Kaylee, 14: Dear Big Tobacco, You have already given cancer to my 87-year-old grandmother, and now you’re trying to hook my friends. I don’t think so!!!
(Additional comments appended)
Teen smoking statistics are alarming. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, approximately 32,000 California youth start smoking every year. An estimated 1,862,000 kids now alive in this state will become smokers, and 596,000 of them will die from smoking-related causes. Read says, “The greatest numbers of new smokers are underage teens. Focusing prevention efforts on this age group will ultimately lead to fewer tobacco-related health issues and deaths in the future.”
For additional information on the “Friends Don’t Give Friends Cancer” campaign, contact the Tobacco Education Program at Shasta County Public Health, 530/229-8187.
Additional examples of Teen Comments to Tobacco Companies from Dontbuythelies.org:
Ashley, 13: You should really stop trying to get teens to smoke; and you should feel horrible if you have children … can you look your kid straight in the eye and give them tobacco? Not the same as when you’re killing someone else’s kid, huh?
Andrew, 15: You killed my grandma, grandpa, and gave my other grandma cancer and she is fighting through it right now.
James, 14: All three of my grandpas died from your products!!! I miss them.
Gaby, 13: All that money you’re wasting could be used for something more important, like child hunger.
Jessica, 15: What would you say to your kids if they came home and said they are going to smoke?? You would tell them no because you don’t want them to get mouth cancer so why make other parents go through that!?!? STOP SELLING TOBACCO TO KIDS!!!
Janey, 14: I don’t believe in the use of tobacco because that is how my mother died two years ago and I don’t want to see it happen again.
Aleta Carpenter is retired Sacramento lobbyist who returned to her Shasta County roots, seeking a calmer lifestyle. She is a member of the Shasta County Tobacco Coalition and works as a Community Education Specialist II for Shasta County Public Health. She loves being in a position to give back to the community that gave so much to her in her early years.