The Day Big Tobacco Stole My Son

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My teen didn’t stand a chance.

My Dad was a factory worker who enjoyed a good pull from a Heineken after a hard day as a shade tree mechanic. He also smoked Lucky Strike cigarettes. As a self-righteous teenager, fresh out of health class where they showed me pictures of diseased lungs, I often chastised him for “polluting my world.”

Eventually he quit smoking in his 50s, but he suffered from emphysema for most of his retirement and died only three years after he was diagnosed with lung cancer. I watched him die a terribly slow death, trying to catch every breath. So the very last thing I needed was to have my sons take up smoking.

My heart just about stopped when I picked up the phone at work and the assistant principal at Wheaton-Warrenville South High School in Wheaton, Ill., was on the line.

Mr. Principal was calling to say that my sophomore, Steven, had been caught smoking and was issued a ticket by the campus police officer. Since this was his first offence, he could stay in school, but there would be consequences for future issues. All the way home I practiced my Don’t-Smoke-Over-My-Dead-Body speech.

Steve defused my angst by saying, “All I was doing was holding Freddy’s cigs. They weren’t mine.” And, I believed him. Because I wanted to believe that he’d be smarter than that. But, the next time Steve was caught smoking behind the school and Mr. Principal called my office, I had to pick him up for a three-day suspension from school. I was so mad at him.

As a single mother raising my three boys alone, I was always vigilant for any signs of pending juvenile delinquency. Breaking curfew, truancy, skipping classes, were all on my list as warning signs that they were eventually going to spend the rest of their lives in prison orange garb. Smoking was definitely out, especially after seeing Grandpa’s struggle.

Steve continued to smoke, and has continued the habit into adulthood, despite my objections. I have observed, however, how the cigarette companies targeted my sons. Almost every week while my three were in high school and beyond, I’d throw away the direct mail pieces from Camel cigarettes, offering coupons for discounted sexy, new tastes and brands. I shouldn’t be surprised, but I was, at how tenacious the marketers were at reaching my sons.

But the mailers I diligently threw away didn’t have the bland artwork that Lucky Strikes used. This was Joe Camel for the new smoking generation. It was cool and that’s exactly what they were using to entice my young men with. That and the Marlboro Man, an equally masculine hero to worship.

A more disturbing study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (1991) found that by age six nearly as many children could correctly respond that “Joe Camel” was associated with cigarettes as could identify that the Disney Channel logo was related to Mickey Mouse.

My own three sons have all smoked, much to my dismay. I am adamantly against smoking. By anyone. Even Luke Skywalker called them “death sticks” when he was offered some in one of the Star Wars movies. But my own sons are not alone. According to the American Lung Association, every minute 4,800 teens will take their first drag off of a cigarette. And, of those, approximately 2,000 will become chain-smokers, ensnared by a habit. Research has shown that it’s rare for an adult to form a smoking habit and that most picked up their first cigarette when they were impressionable teens.

In an effort to protect the health of the American population and to prevent teens from ever picking up that first cigarette, the federal Food and Drug Administration has released nine graphic images designed to deter smoking. They include a picture of a man smoking from his tracheotomy and messages such as “Smoking can kill you.” The current warning is small and usually placed on the side of the cigarette packages. Canadian warnings are much more pronounced and other countries do use graphic warnings on cigarette packaging to deter citizens from smoking. And, yet, they still pick up those packages, in ever increasing numbers, according to the American Lung Association. Despite all of our education, research and scientific knowledge, when we’re teenagers we’re still dumber than rocks when it comes to things like making good choices.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry finally has figured out what the problem is with teens and poor impulse control. According to research they have discovered that:

Scientists have identified a specific region of the brain called the amygdala which is responsible for instinctual reactions including fear and aggressive behavior. This region develops early. However, the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that controls reasoning and helps us think before we act, develops later. This part of the brain is still changing and maturing well into adulthood.

Because of these differences in brain development, teens are more likely to:

  • Act impulsively
  • Get in accidents
  • Get involved in fights
  • Engage in dangerous or risky behaviors

And because of these brain issues, they’re less likely to:

  • Think before they act
  • Pause to consider consequences of their actions
  • Modify dangerous or inappropriate behaviors.

So here we are parents. We now have the answer to this age-old question of “Why?” So my sons, even after I’ve warned them and they’ve seen their grandfather die of lung cancer, directly related to his Lucky Strike habit, they still pick up those “death sticks” and take their first puff.

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