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Smoke Signals

Maya Murphy  and Meredith Malcolm-Wium
Robert Scheer

Butt Heads: UCSC 'frosh' Maya Murphy (left) and Meredith Malcolm-Wium began smoking in high school, calling it 'a social thing.' Neither plans to do it forever.

For college-aged young adults, the numbers prove that smoking is cool again--and anti-smoking activists are worried

By Kelle Walsh

THERE IS A SCENE in My Best Friend's Wedding where Julia Roberts is racing to the airport in a panic, chain-smoking Marlboros so convincingly it's impossible not to worry about her health. The scene is strangely foreign, yet somehow familiar. While it harks back to the golden age of cinema with its overflowing ashtrays and decanters in every apartment, the scene is also indicative of pop culture's growing acceptance of smokers, as witnessed in recent movies, magazines and music videos. Increasingly, these scenes mirror the lifestyle choices of many college-aged adults.

Despite Herculean efforts aimed at the nation's young people to reduce smoking rates, on-screen smoking reflects a mind-boggling surge in the popularity of Public Enemy No. 1. Researchers say that the 3,000 teenagers who take up the tobacco habit each day act largely out of peer influence or rebellion against their parents.

But that doesn't explain the surprising rise in smoking among young adults, the over-18 population--smokers who, activists say, should know better.

The percentage of adults who smoke went up in 1996, mostly due to a rise in the number of smokers among young adults. No one in his or her early 20s can claim ignorance about the dangers of smoking. For years we've been bombarded with increasingly dire warnings about what cigarettes do to our bodies, our unborn children, and the unfortunate innocents engulfed in our blue haze. Still the numbers climb.

Almost 28 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds smoke cigarettes, up from 23 percent in 1991. On college campuses and in bars and coffeehouses throughout the nation, young people defiantly light up and blow smoke in the faces of incredulous health professionals, as well as the government, which has made snuffing out youth smoking one of its most urgent missions.

California voters in 1989 passed Proposition 99, a 25-cent tax on cigarettes, the proceeds of which fund one of the nation's most aggressive anti-smoking campaigns. On both state and local levels, health programs have been established to educate the masses about the health risks involved with tobacco use. Studies were conducted about attitudes toward smoking, and an advertising campaign hit back at the tobacco industry's slick $1.7 million-per-day promotional effort with a series of anti-smoking ads.

"Nicotine Soundbites" features video footage from the Waxman hearings which show tobacco CEOs swearing under oath before a congressional committee that their products are nonaddictive. "Debby" highlights the devastating effects of nicotine addiction by showing a 46-year-old laryngectomy patient smoking through the breathing hole in her throat.

For a while, the ad campaigns seemed to work. Between 1990 and 1993, smoking rates among California's young adults remained relatively stable. But in 1994, paralleling national trends, the rate jumped by 30.8 percent.

After years of decline in popularity, cigarettes and now cigars seemingly define a new Zeitgeist. In retro-hip fashion, growing numbers of young people are scoffing at warning labels, statistics and pleas of the health-conscious and continuing to light up.

Image Junkies

YOUNG ADULT SMOKERS often share the same story. Most started when they were in their early teens, a result of curiosity or peer influence. Many recall stealing cigarettes from their parents or siblings to support their new habit. And most young smokers say they don't plan to smoke indefinitely.

Colleen Stevens, spokesperson for the California Tobacco Education Media Campaign, says they are in for a rude awakening.

"Almost everyone who smokes as a young person says they will only smoke for a couple of years and then quit," Stevens says. "What they don't realize is how difficult tobacco can be to quit, how hard it is to use an addictive product for five, six, seven years and then quit."

Kiersten McCutchan, a 25-year-old UCSC journalism student, says she wishes she had never started.

"I sit up at night sometimes, so angry at the tobacco companies for making this product that's so addictive," McCutchan says. "For the rest of my life I'm gonna have to fight the urge to smoke."

A smoker for 10 years, McCutchan quit her pack-a-day habit just two months ago with the help of a nicotine patch. Like many young-adult smokers, she had little concern about her habit into her early 20s. But when smoking started to affect her appearance noticeably and leave her winded from common activities like climbing stairs, she tried to stop. Her difficulty doing so just drove home the message that she was hooked. "It makes me mad that I'm addicted to something," she says.

Perhaps it's not so surprising that many young adult smokers say they don't think that cigarettes should be available to kids under age 18. Choosing bad habits should be left to those fully aware of the consequences of that behavior, they say, something not possible when you are 15.

But even those who have entered the age of reason regularly take up the habit, knowing full well that it could, at best, become a monkey on their back, and at worst kill them.

"It's image," says Lynn Schiffman of the American Lung Association of the Central Coast. "Why else would people take up this habit? Really, when you taste a cigarette for the first time, does anyone like it? It's all about image--there is no other advantage to smoking."

Because of Tinseltown's role promoting this image, according to experts, at least partial responsibility for the new nonchalance about smoking rests squarely on the shoulders of Hollywood.

Earlier this year, the American Lung Association pointed out that in all of last year's Oscar-nominated films, at least one lead character was smoking--something not seen in recent memory. On-screen smoking by the likes of Julia Roberts, John Travolta, Winona Ryder or Johnny Depp, who appeal to young audiences, drive the idea that smoking is the thing to do.

"It's definitely not the skid-row type [who is smoking in the movies]. It's definitely the more upbeat, better educated individual in a lead role. And there was very little tobacco use by any other than lead characters," says Theresa Stockwell, a project director with the Central Coast Tobacco-Free Regional Project.

Experts say that the prevalence of smoking in movies leads to inflated perceptions about both the use and acceptance of tobacco within society.

"It creates a social milieu that it's accepted, that everyone is doing it. The teen perception that people are smoking a lot more than they are, I think, is because they are surrounded by it, they think it's normal and that it's accepted that everyone is doing it," says Janine Robinette, director of the Monterey County Health Department's Tobacco Control Program.

"In California, 18 percent of adults smoke, but most young people believe the percent of smoking is way higher than that," Stevens adds.

Death Merchants

DOUG LIMAN, director of the hit movie Swingers, describes the twentysomething attitude as an imperative to "act like nothing is socially irresponsible." It's this attitude Hollywood plays on when it fuels the message that being young and hip means lighting up. But Hollywood isn't alone.

The tobacco industry has wasted no time in exploiting this attitude, either. Engrossing full-page ads of attractive, retro/hipster Xers scream from the pages of alternative newspapers, which appeal to the "active urban singles who think dailies are irrelevant," according to a recent New York Times article.

Advertisements promoting local music events like the Camel Page ("Your highway to urban nightlife") or Marlboro's "What to Do, Where to Go" both carry the Surgeon General's warning about the dangers of smoking, and yet serve to cement the association of cigarettes with good times.

It is marketing like this, making the product too accessible to ignore, that allows the tobacco industry to morph right before the eyes of regulators trying to rein it in. Industry observers say it's no surprise that the most popular cigarettes--Marlboro, Camel and Newport--are also the most heavily advertised and promoted worldwide.

Even with one foot in the grave, Joe Camel remains a powerful testament to the power of advertising. When RJ Reynolds introduced the character in 1988, Camel cigarettes held only a one-half share of the under-18 market. By 1991, that share value had gone up to 32.8 percent, or $476 million in sales. Camel had shed its image as "an old man's cigarette."

A new set of ads is introducing the idea of "safer" tobacco, cigarettes that are additive-free. For example, in Winston's latest campaign, facing full-page ads compare two identical cigarettes propped against white backgrounds with only the words, "Yours. 94 percent tobacco, 6 percent additives. Ours. 100 percent tobacco, 0 percent additives."

The message? Clean, natural cigarettes offer you a way to smoke healthily. "It's a scam," scoffs Dr. Stanton Glantz, a member of the state's Tobacco Education and Research Oversight Committee.

"A lot of people think it's the additive that makes the cigarette more dangerous, and there are additives put in cigarettes to increase the addictive potential. But even if they didn't have additives, the most addicting thing in cigarettes is tobacco."

"They are good marketers," Glantz adds wryly. "They get people to put burning sticks in their mouths."

Smoking Rebels

WHILE AN ADVERTISEMENT in a magazine or cigarette sponsorship of a favorite band may not directly compel someone to smoke, industry analysts say having the Marlboro logo, for instance, constantly in our line of sight allows cigarettes to remain a familiar element of our social landscape. And this, perhaps, is the best advertising of all.

"Nobody wants to believe advertising influences them to do anything. But when the 'cool' kids are smoking in the movies, it subtly goes into their subconscious, it permeates every facet of our lives so that people start to think it's normal to smoke," Stevens says.

The rules of the new tobacco regulations are still being hammered out, but some attempts to break through this cloud of smoke wafting through every stratum of society will surely be made. Advertising within 1,000 feet of schools is banned, and so probably will be cigarette-company sponsorship of sporting events. Print advertising will be strictly limited. And states are getting involved too. In January 1998, all bars in the state will go smoke-free as the result of a controversial resolution that has been held up by lawmakers for the past two years.

Anti-tobacco advocates hope these efforts will reverse the trend of youth smoking once and for all. But some experts say that the best way to keep young people from smoking is to take the focus off teenagers and focus instead on young adults.

"Advertising aimed at people in their young 20s is the optimal way to reach teenagers," Glantz says. "The tobacco industry is presenting smoking as a way to look grown up. That's why all of this restricting direct access to kids doesn't work in the long run. That's exactly the way the tobacco industry wants it. [It] makes kids want to rebel."

As for decreasing cigarette rates among the twentysomethings themselves, restrictions on smoking in bars may help. But polls conducted about American attitudes toward smoking show that even while we don't want someone else's smoking to affect us, we don't think it should be banned, either.

"The ban is a difficult issue," Robinette says. "You can't ban someone from making a movie that has smoking in it, but I also see a lot of people who don't see how they contribute to things that aren't good for people, but are [doing so]."

Meanwhile, young adult smokers may struggle with an addiction, but they stand by their belief that smoking is a personal choice. Keep it from the kids, they say. But we'll pick our poison. Or, as 20-year-old smoker Julie Fitch says, "We're very select about our own self-destruction. You know the things that are bad for you--you choose your own demise."

UCSC's McCutchan tells a flipside to that tale: "If I had one wish in the whole world," she says, "it wouldn't be that I'd be the richest woman, or the most beautiful. It would be that I'd be able to smoke cigarettes without any repercussions on my health, looks, nothing."

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From the Sept. 25-Oct. 1, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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