By NICK CHILES
About a fifth of high school students are smokers, and an even more alarming five percent of middle-schoolers—despite a deluge of information washing over them on a regular basis about the dangers of smoking, according to a new report released by U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin. Where are they still getting the idea that smoking is cool? Maybe it’s the fault of Snooki and the cast of “Jersey Shore.”
At a press conference to release the report, the first done on smoking by the surgeon general since 1994, Benjamin described tobacco use as a “pediatric epidemic” and called on the nation to step up and stamp out the epidemic among young people. The study makes clear that if you keep children from starting the habit, they will be unlikely to take it up later in life—more than 80 percent of smokers begin by age 18 and 99 percent of adult smokers in the U.S. start by age 26.
I have to believe that with everything most of our kids know about the dangers of tobacco use, those who start puffing on cigarettes in high school and even middle school are trying to make a point that goes a lot deeper than curiosity. They are committing acts of rebellion, doing something vaguely illicit and subversive—something they know the adults in their life wouldn’t approve of. But the problem is, a few puffs behind the gym to prove you’re a bad-ass very quickly morphs into something else: a habit. One that very well might be draped around your neck for the rest of your life. Every day in the U.S., according to the surgeon general’s report, more than 3,800 people under the age of 18 smoke their first cigarette—and more than 1,000 of them become daily smokers. That means almost a third of those bad-ass rebels are signing an early death certificate—the 1,000-plus kids who become longtime smokers every day replace the 1,200 adults who die every day in the U.S. from smoking. I guess Simba would call it the circle of life—though in this case “circle of death” is probably more appropriate.
The tobacco companies still spend billions of dollars each year advertising their products, though they have to be a lot slicker about it these days. But their message apparently is still luring in converts every day. Of the one in four high school seniors who smoke, most of them will become adult smokers and half of them will die prematurely as a result, according to the report.
Benjamin called on the nation to come up with a number of strategies, including more public service ads and higher taxes on cigarettes, to keep the kiddies away from the cancer sticks. While the total number of young smokers has declined since the 1994 study—from 27.5 percent to 19.5 percent—the rate of decline has slowed in recent years. That should be a cause of worry for parents, since it indicates that some societal factors we may not be aware of are surreptitiously brainwashing our kids.
I think I have the culprit—Snooki and her housemates on “Jersey Shore,” who can frequently be seen puffing away on that ridiculously popular show. As a matter of fact, if we think about it hard enough, we could probably find a way to blame all of society’s ills on the cast of “Jersey Shore.
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Mom. NY Times bestselling author. Pop culture ninja. Unapologetic lover of shoes, bacon and babies. Nice with the verbs. Founder of the top black parenting website, MyBrownBaby.