After anxiously waiting in a classroom for 48 minutes, senior John* is finally released for lunch. He exits the building and crosses the parking lot toward his car, but before he starts the engine, fastens his seatbelt, or even closes the door, he does what he has been waiting to do all morning—he lights up a cigarette.
This is one instance of a trend has steadily become more noticeable at UAHS, and with this change, comes a renewed smoking culture that has a great impact on the entire community.
A Social Norm
John began smoking during his sophomore year, but it really began to pick up last summer. Like most teens who smoke, he said he never even meant to start the habit.
“I was really reluctant to start. It just wasn’t something I wanted to do,” John said.
Although he attributed his reluctance to the health effects, John said that became less and less important to him.
“After a while, I started,” he said, “and I don’t really care about the health effects anymore.”
The health effects, however, are serious in terms of both long and short term consequences. According to school nurse Vicki Powelson, the health problems range from lung cancer to heart disease and strokes. Other effects that impact smokers more immediately are an increase in blood pressure and hygiene issues, like yellow teeth and bad breath.
Those repercussions are beginning to accumulate as John’s habits have grown to their levels today. John admits he’s addicted and smokes half a pack or more everyday. However, he does not believe that his situation is the norm for students at UAHS.
“I don’t think [smoking] is as big of a deal as it is made out to be [at UAHS],” John said. “I only know five or so people who are actually addicted. The rest of the people who smoke do so casually, like at parties.”
UAHS school nurse Laurie Long believes that smoking is ever present.
“To some degree, [teens] have always smoked and it’s always been a part of their culture,” Long said. “But I do think that [students smoking] dropped [in numbers] for a while and now it seems to have increased.”
Senior Eric Riley, who does not smoke, said that while he did not view smoking as a huge problem, the sight of students lighting up has become more frequent.
“I see a lot of kids smoking at school, especially in their cars on the way to lunch,” Riley said. “In my grade, I’ve definitely seen an increase in smoking. I think as we’ve gotten older, more students have experimented and become addicted.”
While students may admit to smoking casually at parties or with friends, they downplay its significance because they deny addiction. Among these students is sophomore Matt*.
“So many people smoke at parties—even people you wouldn’t believe smoke,” he said. “They’re not necessarily addicted, but they will take it if it is offered.”
The expansion is also being observed by students who choose to abstain. Junior Laura Kington, who does not smoke, has taken note.
“A lot of my friends have started smoking, but I don’t think it’s that big of a thing. Most kids smoke socially but aren’t addicted,” Kington said. “The only time it is really in your face is at parties.”
Junior Sam* also mentioned parties and said that smoking is not kept to small segments of the student body.
“At parties, a ton of people will go out to smoke,” he said. “It’s not only people from specific [social] groups, it’s all kinds of people.”
A Thin Line
With more students smoking, it has become a more visible issue on a daily basis. During a walk up and down Mount Holyoke during a lunch period, one may find two or three cars with students smoking in them.
“Often during lunch [we] will smoke,” Sam said. “And I see people in their cars during lunch with a cigarette in their mouth.”
Riley expressed similar sentiments, saying students smoke at school in several places.
“I’ve seen students smoking in the parking lot and even right outside the building,” Riley said. “The [practice] field always has cigarette butts too.”
Such activity, use or possession of cigarettes, is grounds for discipline, suspension, emergency removal, or even expulsion, as deemed by administrators, according to the Students’ Rights and Responsibilities Handbook.
That does not always stop students who think it is worth the risk to smoke during school hours or on school grounds.
“I smoke during lunch all the time,” Matt said. “It’s a nice break from classes.”
Sophomore Nicholas Mehrle has been noticing the increase in smokers at UAHS. However, he said the smoking scene is avoidable for those who don’t wish to become involved.
“It’s definitely visible to everyone,” Mehrle said. “I definitely view it as a bad thing, but it doesn’t really change my view on these people, because they don’t do it around me, so I can just ignore it.”
Even more risky is the activity of senior James*. James is 18, and therefore of legal age to buy cigarettes. He doesn’t just buy them for himself, though. James has also bought and sold cigarettes to younger friends and classmates; several times he has made the transaction during school.
“I’ve sold to people who aren’t 18 yet,” James said. “I know it’s illegal and against school rules, but I think it’s their decision, so I let them make it.”
Apart from buying tobacco from people like James, students are left to find stores that won’t ask for proof of age. Sam, who is only 17, does not consider this much of a problem. He said plenty of stores around town are looking for the extra business.
“More often than not, I have to go buy them myself,” he said.
However, Sam and Matt said it is more convenient to buy from a friend than going through the trouble and risk of buying tobacco themselves.
“It’s just more convenient and less of a hassle,” Sam said.
When asked if he is exacerbating a serious problem, James didn’t think so.
“I don’t think I’m contributing to a problem,” he said. “[If they don’t get them from me] people can get cigarettes other ways. Plus most people I know aren’t addicted. They just smoke to feel good.”
But the line between smoking socially and becoming addicted is thin. According to the National Institute of Drug Abuse, “When someone develops tolerance, he or she needs more drug to get the same effect. Eventually a person can become addicted. Once a person becomes addicted, it is extremely difficult to quit. People who start smoking before the age of 21 have the hardest time quitting, and fewer than 1 in 10 people who try to quit smoking succeed.”
This statistic explains how even if smoking is initially just a casual habit, it can quickly grow into something more. Nicotine is the addictive component of tobacco, and it reaches the brain in eight seconds after someone inhales tobacco smoke, according to the NIDA. The pattern of teens smoking affects both genders and all ages, with most teens starting to smoke as just an experiment.
Powelson said students don’t realize the extent of their actions so they continue to smoke despite warnings.
“[Students] think it’s cool to smoke,” Powelson said. “They don’t think in terms of addiction. That’s what smoking is: an addiction. It’s easy to start and hard to stop.”
Peer pressure is a major factor in why students start smoking, particularly at parties that teens attend. Smoking at parties and other social events is how Sam started smoking during his sophomore year.
“I wasn’t directly pressured,” he said, “but it just felt weird to be [at a party where people are smoking] and not do it, too.”
This is similar to the way that other students, including Sarah*, began smoking; however, Sarah also emphasized the curiosity that she felt for smoking.
“I was constantly being offered cigarettes, but it wasn’t just that,” she said. “Just being around them tempted me to try.”
Now, Sarah and Sam smoke one or two packs per week and have friends who do the same. So while students smoke in casual situations and seem to think it is not a problem, with friends, they may be extending the habit.
“I didn’t mean to, but I got one of my friends to start smoking,” Sarah said. “I did it, and eventually she decided to [smoke,] as well.”
According to the NIDA, 80-90 percent of smokers started as teenagers, some even starting as young as middle school. Furthermore, 70 percent of teens age 17 or less say they regret starting.
Sarah said she believes her friend is now addicted to cigarettes.
“I think that smoking at parties can be just as bad as anywhere else,” she said. “The effects are just the same.”
Solving the Problem
Despite the information and education students have received over the years regarding the problems associated with smoking, it still remains an ever-present part of teenage culture. And although ending the cycle of addiction is difficult, many methods are proven to be successful for smokers. The NIDA stresses the importance of teen smokers quitting while they can, specifically before the adverse health effects worsen or become deadly. In fact, one in every six deaths in the United States is a result of smoking.
With such a track record, many find it surprising that students take up the habit. Powelson said students need to realize the adverse effects apply to all smokers, young and old.
“Students need to really understand the long term effects that smoking leads to,” Powelson said.
Others believe however, that the information is there, but it is falling upon deaf ears. Programs like Drug Abuse Resistance Education in health class have attempted to teach students about health effects for years.
“DARE doesn’t succeed in preventing [smoking],” Matt said. “If it worked there would be a lot less smoking and drugs in general. Kids believe what they’re learning about drugs, but by the time they are in high school it doesn’t really matter to them.”
John also said that current education programs have little effect on deterring students.
“It’s inevitable. Kids will always want to experiment and feel good,” he said. “DARE told you what could happen to your body, but most kids don’t care much. They have that ‘in the present’ teen mindset.”
Officer Don Stanko, who participates in teaching students at the elementary and middle school level with DARE, agrees that the program has limited effectiveness.
“No one can argue against the message of DARE. The information is dead on, and it’s something students should hear,” he said. “Is it true? Yes. Are [the kids] going to listen? Oftentimes no, because they’ve made up their minds or already started.”
Parents are left to turn to discipline for turning their kids off from smoking, although it may have limited effectiveness. Sam’s parents found out that he smoked during this past summer.
“They were disappointed, obviously, and I was in trouble and got punished,” he said. “But it hasn’t stopped me.”
For now, the key to reversing the trend remains unclear. As for John, he believes it is in the hands of the student body.
“It’s an issue for teenagers to deal with,” John said. “Other people can’t deal with it for [us]. It will always be our decision.”