By Jeff Commings
Ask an adult about the cause of TV newsman Peter Jennings’ death last week and many will remember how shaken they were by the news.
Ask kids about it, and they tend to shake it off.
“It really affected my mom,” said Will Shakey, 18, a smoker since he was 15. “But it didn’t do much to me, though I’ve known forever that smoking might kill me.”
This is the uphill battle anti-smoking advocates are facing in the aftermath of Jennings’ death from lung cancer, caused by more than 20 years of smoking.
Adult smokers are getting the message loud and clear: They should stop smoking right away. Hot lines for the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association are flooded with calls seeking help with quitting. News shows display images of adults throwing away their cigarette packs by the carton.
Some teens interviewed by the Arizona Daily Star wouldn’t allow their names to be printed, but they echoed Shakey’s comments.
There are efforts to get kids to follow older siblings or parents inspired to stop smoking by Jennings’ death.
In Tucson, a state grant filtered through the Pima County Health Department helps every school district in the city run anti-smoking programs in elementary and middle schools.
“We’re fighting them through education,” said Zak Seward, who coordinates the Tobacco Free Ways program for the Sunnyside Unified School District. Program coordinators work full time in their districts, which enables them to develop a relationship with the students they’re trying to reach.
Coordinators create lessons for teachers in grades four through eight, often working with teachers in the classroom to get the message across about the dangers of smoking.
“If we reach every school,” Seward said, “then every kid will be taught.”
Patrick Reynolds, the grandson of former tobacco mogul R.J. Reynolds, is taking his crusade across the country to speak out on the dangers of smoking. He knows that it will take more than Jennings’ death to reach kids.
“Jennings gave us a real gift in being one of the more outspoken news media on the tobacco industry. And God bless him for that,” said Reynolds, who runs the nonprofit organization Tobaccofree Earth. But, he notes, schools often don’t do enough to get the message across. And ads by tobacco companies grab kids’ attention more effectively through color and catchy mascots, like Joe Camel.
A recent study by the American Lung Association found that 22 percent of U.S. high school students still smoke, despite an average drop of 50 percent in the number of teen smokers in the last decade.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that 6.4 million American children alive today will die of a smoking-related disease. Smoking causes 87 percent of the estimated 160,440 lung cancer deaths in the United States each year.
Shakey, a high school dropout who remembers school assemblies that preached about smoking, said he wants to quit, but can never find the right motivation.
“I’ve wanted to stop for a year now, but … it feels cool (to smoke) when I’m around friends,” he said.
State-paid anti-smoking programs aren’t fully instituted in the high schools, though some schools have cessation programs for the students. For now, the main goal is to stop younger kids from smoking before they even think about starting.
“We want to get to them before they go to high school,” Seward said.