Getting serious about smoking

21st November 1997 at 00:00
The evidence for the bad news is all around us. More children are smoking and they can be seen every day on the streets. The good news is that they are not necessarily hooked for life. Research shows (page six) that only half of secondary pupils who experiment with cigarettes continue the habit.

Whether smoking is socially acceptable, as it was until recently, or is outlawed from an increasing number of venues, the lure to the young will persist. Only by making cigarettes less available will the pressure to experiment be reduced. Even then the taste of forbidden pleasures is not be underestimated. But at least, according to the Edinburgh University research, many youngsters having tried the weed do not persist. There can be peer pressure against smoking as well for.

The break on optimism is that we are talking of large numbers. If two-thirds of 15-year-olds have tried cigarettes, as the study suggests, and half of them give up, many thousands are still becoming addicted. Everyone knows that girls have taken to what was once a mainly boys' habit, and since they play less sport they do not face the demands of fitness to give up. Since losing weight or keeping slim are supposedly helped by smoking, media-led fashion pressure on girls is of far greater influence than the dire warnings of long-term damage from doctors.

Health educators need no reminding of the difficulties they face in putting over the message about smoking and drugs. Piling up the evidence of ill effects and concluding with a "say no" admonition have been proved not to work. Children do not like being lectured, much less hectored. They often see themselves as immortal, or at least cannot envisage middle and old age saddled with the consequences of past indulgence. Their optimism is a strength but too often it goes with an absence of common sense.

The new campaign by the Health Education Board for Scotland is right to tackle the smoking habit at its weak point and to play on the lack of commitment by the tentative experimenters. The first priority has to be to stop the increase in the percentage of young people smoking. If numbers start to fall, social acceptability will wane, as it has with the older generation. The impulse to conform is strong in teenagers but that means doing what everyone else is doing and not what authority figures have decreed.

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