THINK ON THESE: The rise of teen smoking

It is sold as a lifestyle, as the taste of freedom and sophistication. Children, sometimes as young as nine, are lured into the tobacco habit by aggressive advertising and marketing. Every hour, ten Filipinos die due to a tobacco-related disease. Most of today’s smokers started before they were eighteen.

“Tobacco advertisements talk to us from our streets, films, radios, television sets and sports events. Everywhere our children and we turn, there is something or someone telling you to smoke,” deplored Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, former director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO).

A recent survey of Filipino adult smokers found 99.8 percent cited tobacco advertisements as one factor for initiating smoking. Movie stars, especially those from Hollywood, have helped, too. Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn were closely identified with their smoker persona and some of their most famous portraits and roles have involved a thick mist of cigarette smoke.

The United Nations health agency has nothing against tobacco advertisements as long as these direct toward adults. “What makes all this unacceptable and treacherous is that this dangerous and addictive product is sold to youth and adolescents as an assertion of their freedom to choose,” Dr. Brundtland pointed out.

A survey conducted by the Department of Health showed that Filipino children as young as five years old are already starting to smoke. On the other hand, the National Youth Commission recently reported that two out of every five Filipino teenagers took up smoking in 2011.

Filipinos start smoking at a young age. An editor-in-chief of a weekly magazine admitted that he started smoking when he was only 14. Until now, he is still hook with the habit. “If I don’t quit smoking, I would probably get lung cancer,” he said. “But I won’t quit smoking.”

Every year, 87,600 Filipinos die of smoking-related ailments that include lung cancer and chronic lung diseases. “(Smoking) is essentially a man-induced disaster that is causing more deaths than all the fatalities due to natural calamities, vehicular accidents, rebellion and all other disasters, either natural or man-caused,” reiterates Dr. Rafael R. Castillo, one of the country’s top cardiologists.

In a country where laws abound, there are no national laws prohibiting minors from buying cigarettes. In fact, many vendors of cigarettes are children. Studies show that as many as 40 percent of adolescents boys smoke.

“The majority of adults who smoke cigarettes begin smoking during adolescence,” notes The Merck Manual of Medical Information. “If an adolescent reaches the age of 18 to 19 years without becoming a smoker, it is highly unlikely that he will become a smoker as an adult. Factors that increase the likelihood of an adolescent smoking are having parents who smoke, peers who smoke, and poor self-esteem.”

Smoking is dangerous to your health, so goes the warning. But smokers can’t just quit because they are addicted to it. Listen to the words of Russell Hoban: “What a weird thing smoking is and I can’t stop it,” he wrote. “I feel cozy, have a sense of well-being when I’m smoking, poisoning myself, killing myself slowly. Not so slowly maybe. I have all kinds of pains I don’t want to know about and I know that’s what they’re from. But when I don’t smoke I scarcely feel as if I’m living. I don’t feel as if I’m living unless I’m killing myself.”

And so it came to pass that two Martians were sent to planet Earth on a mission. When they returned home, they submitted this report to the committee: “The Earth people have an odd practice. They light a fire at the end of a poisonous substance and then suck the smoke into their body. This results in much sickness and even death. The habit is also very expensive. Strange, those Earth people!”

The children must know the evils of smoking – and the government must help. “Protecting children and youth from tobacco is a battle with a well-financed and supremely well-organized adversary,” said Dr. Derek Yach, who was once in-charge with WHO’s Tobacco Free Initiative. “If we expect young people to resist tobacco use, it is essential that we provide governments with meaningful, effective alternatives to becoming accessories to tobacco promotion.”

Are there people whom today’s youth can emulate? Frankly speaking, there are few movie stars who don’t smoke at all. To name a few: Sean Penn, Pierce Brosnan, Ted Danson, Jeremy London, Esai Morales, and supermodel Christy Turlington. These people are speaking out against smoking.

Children who haven’t tried smoking yet must be told not to touch any cigarette. Not starting the habit is easier than quitting smoking. Listen to the story of Benjamin, a 45-year-old former chain smoker who started the habit when he was still a teenager: “I quit smoking several years ago, but I still live with the effects of being a one-time nicotine addict. The most sinister one is the knowledge that I can slide back to being a smoker just like that. The addiction is that strong.”

If you have seen the movie, The War of the Roses, there was this particular scene in which the character played Danny DeVito smashed the glass case with a cigarette and smoked it, thus ending his days as a non-smoker.

“I’ve never come close to having that kind of experience, but I can imagine that happening to me if I let my guard down,” Benjamin said. “And how going back to smoking make me feel so defeated. They don’t happen too often nowadays. But there was a time when I’d actually have dreams in which I’d gone back to smoking. I’d usually wake up feeling panicked which quickly turns to a feeling of relief that it was just a dream.”