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Getting Kids Into a Huff Over Smoking

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Pity the much-maligned smokers.

Shunned at hospitals, public buildings and the workplace, they’re no longer allowed to puff away in most places. Even late-night haunts, where lighting up once seemed a condition of admittance, are now legally off-limits.

And on the grounds of UC Irvine on Sunday, the chance to dunk Joe Camel or study pictures of a charred, cancer-ridden lung was meant to dissuade anyone from opening a pack of Marlboros.

The university does allow smoking in public areas, but it was unlikely to occur during the first anti-smoking outdoor fair. Sponsored by a coalition of Orange County health organizations, the event was held for children and teens to promote the dangers of smoking on World No-Tobacco Day.

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The county’s 15.5% smoking rate is the lowest in California. The state average is 18%, according to Marilyn Pritchard, director of the Orange County Tobacco Use Prevention Coalition. But recent national studies have found that after years of decline, teen smoking is escalating again.

“Kids,” said Tash Sogg, an American Cancer Society volunteer. “You can talk to them [about smoking’s dangers] forever, and they think they’re immortal.”

To combat the decades-old image that smoking is “cool,” public health officials said they must generate publicity for their own message: that smoking is addictive and is linked to a variety of fatal diseases, including lung cancer and emphysema.

At Sunday’s event, about 450 people raced in a 5K “Run for Your Life” through the campus. After the race, families strolled by nearly 20 exhibits that presented an anti-smoking theme for children and teens. Some said the recent increase in teen smokers could be a response to an advertising push toward that demographic by cigarette makers.

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“Smoking is shown as an adult behavior,” Pritchard said. “They think, ‘I’m not a kid, so I’m gonna smoke.’ ”

The Vietnamese Community of Orange County Inc. held squirt gun contests to see who could knock over packs of cigarettes. Santa Ana-based Stop Tobacco Abuse of Minors Pronto created a memorial to celebrities who died of smoking-related illnesses, including John Wayne, Walt Disney and Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys.

Vietnamese Americans and others of Asian descent smoke more than other ethnic groups, said Pritchard, who added that 60% of Asian men smoke.

Tam Nguyen, a volunteer for the Vietnamese Community group, said heavy smoking occurs in coffee shops in Westminster and Garden Grove, even though it’s illegal.

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“But they do it anyway,” said Nguyen, 32, a former pack-a-day smoker who also chewed tobacco. “A lot of them don’t know the health risks. A lot of kids think it’s cool to smoke. We just have to keep educating them, influencing them [not to smoke] and giving them a lot of counseling and support.”

Those aware of the risks are not immune to smoking’s strong powers of addiction.

“They know it and they try to quit, but they’re stressed out,” said Caroline Su, a UC Irvine freshman who doesn’t smoke but who has several friends who do.

But Jenny Zaharson of Laguna Niguel said constant reminders about the health risks of cigarettes--in the classroom and at home--will eventually reduce teen smoking rates. It will also prevent her son, 11-year-old Daniel Avneri, from ever lighting up, she said.

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“At school they talk about it, I talk about it and I never smoked, and his dad talks about it,” she said.

And Daniel repeats what he’s already learned: “It’s bad for you and it’ll kill you.”


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