By Brandi Watters
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. —
The average Madison County teen tries his or her first cigarette at 13.
For one Madison County teen, the habit started earlier.
Although he would not let The Herald Bulletin print his name, a 17-year-old Highland High School student recently disclosed that he’s been smoking since he was 12 years old, and has only been carded twice while trying to buy cigarettes.
His parents know that he smokes, and he said they don’t like it, but they often provide him with the cigarettes when he can’t convince a local cashier to sell them to him.
A recent epidemiology report detailing drug, alcohol and tobacco use by teens in Madison County has found that in nearly every category determined, Madison County teens exceeded the state average in tobacco use.
The Consumption and Consequences of Alcohol and Drugs in Madison County report shows that when Madison County teens enter their junior year in high school, their cigarette smoking reaches its peak.
The report noted that 33 percent of juniors surveyed smoke, compared to the state average of 20 percent.
In the senior year, the number dropped off to just over 31 percent.
Karesa Knight-Wilkerson of Healthy, Tobacco-Free Madison County, said the numbers further demonstrate smoking trends among the high school groups. Healthy, Tobacco-Free Madison County commissioned the study.
Cigar use growing
More 17-year-old girls smoke than 17-year-old boys, but the ratios are flipped for 16-year-olds.
Although cigarettes are still a big problem for area teens, Knight-Wilkerson said cigars are rapidly gaining popularity.
“I’ve seen tons of females walking around with the brown Swisher Sweets,” Knight-Wilkerson said. “A lot of our youth are going to that. It’s become kind of a fad to use the cigars.”
A 17-year-old female Anderson High School student recently told The Herald Bulletin that she smokes flavored cigars because they are cheaper than cigarettes, and often easier to get. While a pack of cigarettes costs her $5, a pack of cigars costs only $1.25.
Knight-Wilkerson said cigars may be popular with teens because of the product’s latest trend, flavored cigar wrappers. “The FDA passed a law regulating cigarettes, but not cigars or dissolvables,” she said. “They can’t do flavored cigarettes, but they can do flavored cigars.”
Dissolvable tobacco is a chewing tobacco product that dissolves in the mouth during use. Dissolvables are often flavored and the Food and Drug Administration has expressed fears that the product will appeal to children and teens.
Knight-Wilkerson said the cigar-smoking trend is just as dangerous, if not more, than smoking cigarettes.
“Cigars can be more dangerous,” she said. “You hear a lot of people when they talk about cigars, they say they don’t inhale, but you inhale. When you puff, it goes down your throat regardless. Cigars have more nicotine, and they also have other chemicals that cigarettes do.”
Knight-Wilkerson said the data is a clear indication that Madison County teens smoke more than their Hoosier peers.
The problem could begin at birth, as indicated by the epidemiology study.
“According to the Indiana Department of Health, 24.5 percent of women in Madison County smoked during pregnancy,” the study noted.
This is higher than both the state and national average.
“The high smoking rate by pregnant women resulted in 391 smoking-affected births,” the study read. “These births cost Madison County $725,523.96.”
According to the March of Dimes, smoking nearly doubles a woman’s chance of delivering a low birth weight baby. Smoking also increases the risk of pre-term delivery, leading to an increase in premature births in America.
“Premature and low-birthweight babies face an increased risk of serious health problems during the newborn period, chronic lifelong disabilities such as cerebral palsy, mental retardation and learning problems, and even death,” according to the March of Dimes.
Dr. Darrel Ross, a radiation oncologist with Saint John’s Health System, hopes anti-smoking laws in Madison County can deter teen and adult smokers.
Knight-Wilkerson said the tobacco coalition has twice tried to pass a smoking ban in the county but failed.
Bombarded by ads
Teens may be less likely to smoke if all smoking in public places is banned, she said, but teens and adults will still be bombarded by tobacco advertisements.
Knight-Wilkerson said she and a colleague tried to count the number of tobacco advertisements on the stretch of road between Scatterfield Road and Interstate 69 to the intersection of Broadway and Scatterfield.
They found 150 advertisements.
“Our kids don’t get anymore advertisement than tobacco. You don’t see milk or any sort of healthy thing advertised much,” said Knight-Wilkerson.
Karen Mitchener of Rickers said the gas station and convenience store chain has a strict policy prohibiting the sale of tobacco to underage teens.
The Highland High School student said he knows not to visit Ricker stores for their strict tobacco policies, but knows exactly which other Anderson establishments to frequent.
The teen said he knows exactly which day to go, when to go and who to ask in order to get cigarettes over the counter.
Mitchener said Rickers enforces its strict policy by testing its cashiers with young looking adults who try to buy cigarettes without being carded. “Not only do we have a company policy but we also have mystery shopper program operated by an outside vendor who visits our stores,” Mitchener said.
There is help for teens and adults who have already started smoking, she said.
Anyone who calls 1-800-Quit-Now will receive two weeks of free stop-smoking aids, she said.
In addition to causing health problems, Knight-Wilkerson said parents should be concerned about tobacco use because it often leads to drug and alcohol abuse. “Tobacco is still a gateway drug.”