While Big Tobacco is bad, Big Tobacco targeting kids is even worse. We all remember Joe Camel and see tobacco packaging that's indistinguishable from candy. Even with all these efforts to get us hooked young, I don't think I would have ever smoked. The people who raised me and where I was raised nearly assured cigarettes wouldn't appeal to me. I also owe my complete lack of nicotine cravings to one intense anti-smoking campaign.
It's very easy to understand why the tobacco industry continues to go after kids. They know full-well this is an awful aim and that they'll be heavily criticized for it but they do it anyway because the young customers are the most likely to become lifers. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, about 90 percent of adult smokers began puffing away before they turned 18. The good news, as you've probably heard, is that since the late 1990s fewer and fewer kids have been smoking. The bad news is that each day around 3,000 adolescents (under 18) try their first cigarette and 1,000 become daily smokers. The American Cancer Society predicts that one-third of these smokers will die prematurely due to smoking-related disease.
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Millions of people use tobacco products. It doesn't mean they are weak, stupid, or overly impressionable. None of us can say why we truly end up using these products or not. Still, I'll shed some light on what I feel has helped determine my path. For me, smoking was never a temptation. Not even close. My father is a family physician. That may have been part of it. But my mom smoked for a long time before I was born and has been open about how great it was. She's even made a pact with my uncle that, once they're old enough, they'll pick it up again -because what's the harm?
Honestly, I never really had to discuss the dangers of smoking with my parents because the appeal was never there. This probably had a lot to do with the fact that I grew up in an area of the world where smoking is something we turned our noses up at (along with a lot of other things). At our county fair, smokers are corralled within little white fences behind the race track grandstand, which is basically a public shaming. None of my friends used tobacco, not even socially. Just last year, my hometown banned smoking tobacco in attached homes to reduce the health impacts of secondhand smoke. That's right, some people cannot smoke within their own homes in my city.
It's obvious that I was never a likely cigarette smoker. Even if I considered it for a moment, it would have had to be before age 6 or so because that's when I, along with many Californians, first saw Debi Austin. If you are unfamiliar with Ms. Austin, you should look her up. She took part in a pioneering anti-smoking campaign for the state, the crowning jewel of which was a video where she tells us she began smoking at 13 and has failed to quit. "They say nicotine isn't addictive," she says in her strained, gravely voice. Then she tilts her head back and takes a puff of a cigarette. Through a hole in her throat.
The smoke trickles out. "How can they say that?"
I had never seen anything like it.
Austin agreed to make this ad, dubbed "Voicebox," after her 4-year-old niece drew a black dot on her neck, saying she wanted to be just like her. It is not a glamorous feature. For a little kid like me, who had no concept of laryngectomy, she was scary. What's more, The California Department of Health says it was the first time after her surgery that she publicly smoked. That can't have been easy but with this video and her continued contributions to tobacco control efforts, she probably save millions of lives.
Anyone who has escaped the clutches of tobacco is lucky. It was easy for me to avoid but that can't be said for much of the world. Smoking is the most common preventable cause of death and it kills up to half of its users. After being smoke-free for 20 years and putting the health of others before herself, Austin died in 2013, at the age of 62. She died of cancer.
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Read more about underage smoking:
Time: 'Marlboro Boys': Photographing Underage Smoking in Indonesia
The Times Asia: Indonesia's child smokers are hooked from age two