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On warm nights, when there's no school the next day, the Starbucks patio at a strip shopping center in suburban Atlanta resembles a teenage smokers' convention.

Every table is crowded with groups of friends passing packs of Newports and Marlboros and lingering late over iced lattes.

One recent night, Adam Protos, 18, and three of his friends were debating which warnings, of all those they'd received in a lifetime of antismoking ads and health-class warning films, came closest to killing their cigarette habits.

There was the death last year from smoking-related cancer of a classmate's mother; that was frightening. Adam also recalled how, in his freshman year, a man with throat cancer came to his suburban high school and delivered an antismoking plea through his artificial voice box.

"That kind of told me, this can happen to you, but did it really make me stop smoking?" Adam says. "Does seeing fat people make you stop eating? You've got to do what makes you happy, and smoking makes me happy."

Adam and his friends belong to a generation of teens who have received more education about the hazards of tobacco than any generation in history. As kindergartners, alarmed by the dangers of smoking, they flushed their mothers' menthols. They have been shown the tricks cigarette makers used to seduce children, such as free gear and billboards with cartoon images (now illegal). They have seen the anticigarette ads that use humor and mockery to deglamorize smoking. And they've seen stomach-turning photos of smokers' blackened lungs and ulcerated tongues.

Yet today, the percentage of high school seniors who smoke is close to a 19-year high. Every year throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the number of teens who smoke has increased. By 1997, almost 37 percent of high school students reported that they had smoked during the past month, according to a national study. The number declined slightly last year, but still, well over a third of American students smoke by the time they leave high school.

What's wrong with this picture?

Each of the two dozen high-school-aged smokers interviewed for this article had a different reason for ignoring the dangers he or she knows so well. Some say they smoke to relieve stress from school. Others say it gives them something to do at parties. Some say they get an intensified sensation from mixing tobacco and alcohol. Some say they've tried to stop, but can't.

And dying of cancer in 40 or 50 years seems to them a long, long way off. And well, you never know--you could get hit by a truck first.


Outside the North Point mall in suburban Atlanta, Ally Gibbs, 17, is taking a break from her sales job at an outdoor equipment store. Sitting cross-legged on a bench, the high school senior barely has time to light up one of her unfiltered Marlboro Reds before she's approached by kids looking for cigarette handouts. The unspoken agreement among the teenagers who cluster by the mall's entrance is this: If you have a pack, you share. But Ally has a no-bumming policy.

Ally, who sports henna-streaked hair and multiple stud earrings, works two sales jobs at the mall, in part because her mother refuses to buy her so much as a toothbrush, she says. That's her mother's way of trying to stop her from spending $1,200 a year on cigarettes.

Ally says she wants to stop smoking, not because of health concerns, but because she'd rather have the money to spend on something else. She also doesn't like feeling addicted, and so she tries to discourage other teens from smoking.

"I've yelled at a lot of people recently," she says, taking a big puff. "These 14-year-olds who come up to me, I tell them forget it, this is the worst thing I ever did. They're wasting money they could be doing good stuff with."

At school, she says, "when any of us try to quit, our friends are real supportive. I don't know one person who smokes because it's cool."

Ally has no idea if her personal crusade will be any more successful than the nationwide antismoking campaign that has bombarded her since before she was old enough to spell "cancer." But she's still terrorizing baby smokers.


Back at the Starbucks, Adam Protos lights another smoke. Like most of the smokers interviewed for this article, he tried smoking for the first time in middle school. But he didn't smoke often until he turned 16 and got a car. To Adam, driving, music, and smoking Camel Lights all go together. "My main light-up time is right after school," he says. "That's the best cigarette of the day."

He thinks the antismoking commercials are corny and out of touch, especially those that tell parents to talk to their kids about smoking. His mother criticizes his smoking all the time, he says, yet he still does it. And laws that punish teens for buying cigarettes only make smoking more attractive, he argues.

Finally, the decision to smoke is his choice. "I just think the risks are worth taking compared to the enjoyment I get," he says. "I would much rather die at 65 and look back and say I did what floated my boat, than live to 95 and say I didn't do anything."


Michael Valania, on the other hand, says he no longer has a choice. He can't quit. "My mother and I tried to quit together," he says, "but I found myself feeling a lot more irritable."

Unlike Ally, he does give cigarettes to people who ask. At another outdoor coffee bar in another suburban mall, Michael, 17, tells a friend that a homeless man advised him always to give up a cigarette, because you never know when you'll desperately need one yourself. "So I do," Michael says.

His friend stubs out her Newport and quickly responds: "Just don't give one to my little brother."
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:more teenagers smoke
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 20, 1999
Previous Article:What Americans Worry About.

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