A warm midsummer Friday night and the smell of cigarette smoke lingers outside Palace Park, an Irvine amusement park.
Sitting on a bench, 16-year-old Thomas is talking to his friends, smoking and coughing.
He tried his first cigarettes when he was 8. “My dad smokes,” he said. “I picked up his butts and smoked them.” But he didn’t smoke constantly until the seventh or eighth grade. Now he smokes a pack of Parliaments a day.
He’s recovering from a cold and has had a lingering cough for about three weeks. “I’m sure if I stopped smoking for a little bit, I’d get better, but I usually get bored. So I start to smoke again. It’s something to do.”
According to two recent studies, smoking has increased among youth--rising by one-third among 13- and 14-year-olds since 1991.
One annual survey of 50,000 young people, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, found that 18.6% of all eighth-graders had smoked in the preceding 30 days and 9% smoked daily.
Thirty-one percent of high school seniors said they smoke.
Another report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention blamed the rise on heavy advertising. The rate of new smokers age 14 to 17 peaked in 1988, the year R.J. Reynolds introduced Joe Camel, it said.
Some also say young movie stars Winona Ryder, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt are re-glamorizing smoking in movies and photo layouts.
The young smokers outside Palace Park are oblivious to surveys and studies. They are skeptical of the motivations that others attribute to them.
“I didn’t get it from TV or movies. Just my friends,” said a friendly 16-year-old high school junior with rubber bands on his braces.
Like the others, he said his parents smoke.
He started smoking in the eighth grade. “I was kind of experimenting. It was probably peer pressure,” he said. “It relaxes me and school was a drag.” It didn’t even make him cough, he said. “I’d grown up around smoke with my parents. I knew I could handle it.”
A 17-year-old named Jane said she started on her own. “It wasn’t peer pressure or anything,” she said. “I heard you could lose weight, that’s what I heard. You know how teen-agers are.”
Smoking didn’t accomplish much except make her parents mad, she said. But she said it is too hard to quit because all her friends smoke.
In the national survey, more than half of the 12th-graders who smoke more than half a pack a day said they had tried but had been unable to quit.
A pretty 14-year-old girl with a ponytail and backpack said, “It’s, like, really hard to quit.
“I guess I’m kind of addicted to it.”
She’s been smoking since her friends encouraged her at age 11. She smokes five cigarettes a day and has given up running because she can’t breathe as well as she used to.
The kids readily concede that they know better.
They acknowledge that smoking is bad for their health and that it may even cause lung cancer. Eventually. So they plan to quit. Later.
“I’ll probably quit when I’m 30,” an 18-year-old said. “I don’t want to smoke when I’m old. That’s bad.”
Why doesn’t he stop now? “I like the taste. Menthols are gu-uuhd,” he said, inhaling one of the 20 or so he smokes a day.
He doubts smoking is addictive.
“They just say it’s addicting. People just do it because they are bored and it’s something to do. That’s what I do when I’m bored.”