By Adelaide Effie Beckman
For The TimesDaily
It remains illegal to market tobacco products to teenagers, but some health experts argue it hasn’t stopped some companies from finding a way around the law.
Tobacco companies are now targeting teens with cheap nicotine products in colorful packaging, according to Melanie Dickens, tobacco prevention and control coordinator for the Lauderdale County Health Department.
Dickens said teens are more susceptible to the new flavored tobacco products such as nicotine sticks and orbs.
However data collected by the Alabama Department of Public Health shows that the number of high schools students who smoke has significantly decreased. Nearly 19 percent of high school students in Alabama smoked in 2010, compared to 30.2 percent in 2000.
Nicotine sticks look like toothpicks, but they are pure nicotine. Dickens said teenagers can easily have them in their mouths without attracting attention from their parents or their teachers. She added nicotine orbs are small dissolvable tablets of nicotine that come in different flavors, which “look like little Tic-Tacs.”
Dickens said parents don’t always know if their children are using tobacco because the new nicotine products don’t create the smoke or smell of cigarettes and cigars.
“A lot of times if the kids are not using cigarettes . . . mom and dad might not be aware,” she said.
Dickens said teens often don’t realize how much nicotine they’re using. One Black and Mild cigar has the same amount of nicotine as 10 cigarettes, and one pinch of smokeless tobacco has the same amount of nicotine as three or four cigarettes. Both products are popular with teens, she said.
“They feel invincible; that’s why they don’t want to quit,” she said. “It’s an addiction and a habit.”
Talking to children early on about the dangers of tobacco use is the best way to keep them from becoming smokers, according to Valerie Thigpen, prevention specialist for the Lauderdale County schools district.
“If you wait until they’re in the sixth grade, they’ve already been exposed,” she said.
Thigpen said children need to be taught the risks associated with tobacco and how to say no to peer pressure.
“I am a major believer in if you can prevent someone from starting, it’s a whole lot easier than getting someone to stop once they’ve started,” Thigpen said.
There are lots of reasons teens smoke or use smokeless tobacco, Dickens said. Peer pressure, boredom and marketing all play a role. Thigpen said teens often smoke because their parents do.
University of North Alabama student Jestin Coats said he only smokes when he’s stressed after a long day. He said he rarely smokes, maybe once every nine months, and he has no trouble stopping once he’s started.
Coats said he had his first cigarette when he was 19 and his parents didn’t know. “I don’t want them to.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say other factors that contribute to tobacco use in teens are low socioeconomic status, lack of parental support or involvement, low self-image or self-esteem, low levels of academic achievement and exposure to tobacco advertising.
Religious participation, racial/ethnic pride and higher academic achievement or aspirations are factors that have been found to protect teens from tobacco use.
“Tobacco is a huge issue with a lot of our high school students,” Thigpen said. “They tell me, ‘I just like it. I like the way it makes me feel. It calms me down.’ The kids seem to live by ‘if it feels good, do it,’ because if it brings them pleasure they can’t get enough of it.”
Officials with the disease control center say tobacco use in teens is associated with high-risk sexual behavior, use of alcohol and use of marijuana and other drugs.
“Tobacco is still truly the gateway drug,” Thigpen said.
“We’re not saying that everyone who uses tobacco is going to use bigger things,” Dickens said, adding it’s a risky behavior that leads to other risky behaviors.
Katelyn Cosby, 22, a resident of Rogersville, said she started smoking when she was 14 or 15.
“My mom was not happy,” Cosby said. “She used to steal my cigarettes out of my purse and put ‘how to quit smoking’ pamphlets in my purse. I usually just gave them back to her.”
Cosby said she started smoking because many of her friends were smoking. She quit smoking while she was pregnant with her children, but she said she hasn’t made the effort to quit permanently because it’s too much of a habit.
“It’s weird to try not to (smoke),” she said.
Dickens said 6.3 million children who are alive today will eventually die of tobacco related illnesses if the current rates of tobacco use do not change.
“(Not using tobacco) is the one thing you can do to reduce your risk of cancer,” said Amy Fields, a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society. “People who quit at any age, whether they’re young or old, they’re going to live longer.”
Fields said as many as one-third of cancer deaths could be prevented if people avoided tobacco products. Lung cancer is the cancer most commonly associated with smoking, but using tobacco products increase a person’s risk of developing all types of cancer.
“Kids have no idea the damage they do to themselves (by smoking),” Thigpen said.
Dickens said teens should try to break their smoking habits as soon as possible because the longer a person smokes, the harder it is to quit.
For information on how to quit, Dickens suggested calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW or talking to a health care provider.
Fields said her advice to parents whose children smoke is to do everything possible to help their children kick the habit immediately.
By Adelaide Effie Beckman