Oklahoma ranks No. 6 in high school student tobacco use

Monday, April 22nd 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ More than four out of 10 Oklahoma high school students use tobacco, giving Oklahoma the sixth-highest ranking nationally for this statistic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Among Oklahoma's middle school students, 21 percent smoke cigarettes or use other tobacco products.

``The big tobacco companies have plenty of strategies to replace customers who are dying off, and they're aiming squarely at our teen-agers,'' Janet Love, a program director in the Health Department's tobacco use prevention office, told The Daily Oklahoman.

Tobacco advertisements, peer pressure, teen rebellion and parental ambivalence all play a role in teen smoking, health officials say.

``Even knowing the dangers and consequences of smoking, Oklahoma teen-agers apparently are more likely to try cigarettes. They seem to have an it-won't-happen-to-me mentality,'' said Omare Ogisi, the Tulsa County adult coordinator of Students Working Against Tobacco.

``Once they're hooked or addicted to cigarettes, quitting becomes a lot harder than they ever imagined.''

Students Working Against Tobacco is a youth-led, state-sponsored anti-tobacco initiative that has 4,000 members in chapters statewide.

Ariel Tunnell, 17, joined the SWAT chapter at Oklahoma City's Classen School of Advanced Studies.

An asthmatic, Tunnell said even small amounts of cigarette smoke in restaurants and at rock concerts can trigger severe allergic reactions.

``Many parents think that if smoking is all that their children are doing in society these days ... then the parents don't need to worry much about it,'' she said.

But Tunnell, along with many state health officials, considers cigarettes a ``gateway'' drug.

``If you get addicted to one thing _ cigarettes _ it's easier to get addicted to something else, something stronger,'' she said. ``Teen-agers keep going and going and say to themselves, 'Why stop now?'''

Tobacco company representatives say they support efforts to curb under-age smoking.

``Kids shouldn't smoke. That's an issue on which we all can agree,'' said Brendan McCormick, spokesman for Philip Morris USA.

He said Philip Morris supports tobacco-use-prevention programs on which the 50 states are projected to spend $862 million in 2002.

``Youth smoking is illegal. We can't market cigarettes to kids. But clearly a lot more needs to be done,'' McCormick said.

Lee Weber, a freshman at Edmond Santa Fe High School, said he stole his first cigarette from his mother at age 9 and within three years was up to a daily half-a-pack habit. Under stress, he escalates to a pack a day.

Weber has been caught smoking on campus and in a school bathroom, and earlier this academic year was suspended for two days and fined $100 for smoking on campus.

Several times, he's tried to quit by using nicotine gum and inhalers. But nothing's worked.

``If I'm going to smoke, I'm going to smoke, and it's up to me to quit,'' Weber said.

An estimated 105,000 Oklahomans between the ages of 12 and 18 are tobacco users, which includes cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, chewing tobacco, snuff, cigars and pipes. About 83,000 Oklahomans in the same age group smoke cigarettes only, according to the state Health Department.

Young people are following in the footsteps of adults who give the state one of the nation's highest per capita rates of cigarette consumption.

Oklahoma adults consume cigarettes at a rate of 112 packs per person per year, the 10th-highest rate in the nation. The national rate is 86 packs per person, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

``About half of all youth who experiment with smoking become regular smokers,'' said Doug Matheny, director of the state Health Department's tobacco-use prevention office. ``If current trends continue, more than 60,000 Oklahoma children alive today will die early from tobacco addiction.''