Teen smoking decline not reflected in Missouri

Friday, January 14, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:32 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Near Hickman High School, a group of students gathers in a fast-food restaurant parking lot after the school dismisses at 1:45 p.m.

They talk, laugh, joke and smoke cigarettes.

Amanda Pears, a 16-year-old Hickman sophomore, takes a drag off her cigarette while she shivers. She’s wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans in weather that dips into the 30s.

Amanda began smoking when she was 14.

“I was hanging out with a bunch of people and I just, like, hit this cigarette one day, and since then I’ve done it,” she said. “Everybody started doing it and I started doing it, and now I wish I hadn’t because it’s hard to quit.”

On average, a pack of cigarettes costs $4. Amanda said she spends about $25 per week on cigarettes.

“I use my lunch money sometimes,” she said. “I’ll go a day without eating just to spend my money on cigarettes.”

Although national teen smoking rates have been declining since 2000, Missouri still boasts one of the highest teen smoking rates in the country. A 2003 survey by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services found that 43.5 percent of Missouri middle school students and 65.8 percent of high school students have used some form of tobacco product.

To combat the problem, Sen. Yvonne Wilson, D-Kansas City, has introduced a bill aimed at curbing smoking among Missouri’s youth. The bill would fund anti-tobacco efforts using the

$7 million Missouri is receiving from the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement between tobacco producers and 46 states.

Under the proposed legislation, a Commission for Youth Smoking Prevention would be formed. The commission would create programs designed to prevent and reduce youth smoking.

Similar programs have been successful in other states. In Florida, a program started in 1998 has reduced smoking by 50 percent among middle school students and 35 percent among high school students.

A program in New York focuses on students in grades four through nine and has been shown to reduce smoking among ninth-graders by 73 percent.

The national Drug Abuse Resistance Education program does not focus specifically on preventing smoking but instead teaches fifth-graders how to make decisions regarding drug use.

“We talk about all drugs and all choices, whether they involve drugs or not,” said John Warner, a school resource officer at West Junior High and a DARE instructor. “We include smoking as part of that.”

Warner said the key to preventing children from smoking is to arm them with information about drugs and to teach them how to make decisions.

“DARE teaches kids how to make good decisions,” Warner said. “But we make it specific to drugs.”

Warner said it is the junior high age group the DARE program is attempting to reach. Information is provided early, in hopes that students will choose not to become smokers.

“The earlier someone begins the addiction, the more likely it is they will be a lifetime smoker,” Warner said. “Most people who are adults who smoke began in high school.”

Tara Kelley, a 16-year-old Hickman junior, said she thinks the DARE program does not deter teens from smoking.

“I think it is somewhat effective for other drugs, but just not smoking,” said Tara, who started smoking when she was 13. “It helps relieve stress for me. I got started because my mom was, and she said it helps relieve her stress, so I thought I’d try it.”

Tara said her mother wants Tara to quit, but smoking has become an accepted practice throughout society.

“In a lot of movies you see teens smoking,” she said. “You see it everywhere.”

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