From afar, the hub of students on Martin’s Lane seems to be chatting before school and enjoying the sunny weekday morning. Moving closer, the spots of light from their cigarettes come into view. One student deeply inhales her cigarette, looking satisfied and smiling to her friends as she exhales a curl of grayish smoke, so out of place with the bright morning around her. Another coughs into his arm.
Students congregate at "Smokers' Corner," an area off of the jurisdiction of Conestoga High School. Photos Luke Rafferty/The SPOKE
Just off of school property, they are barely safe from the school’s jurisdiction here. Students say they come here, to “Smoker’s Corner,” to talk to each other, meet up with friends and light up. Sometimes, one student says, freshmen that are just starting to smoke hang around, trying to bum cigarettes from older, more seasoned junior and senior smokers. And when he smoked cigarettes, the student says, “That place was my home.”
On March 8, the U.S. Surgeon General, Regina Benjamin, issued a report on smoking for the first time since 1994, urging a fight on youth tobacco use, and referring to smoking as “a global epidemic among young people.” The report details that 88 percent of adults who are daily smokers first started smoking cigarettes by the time they were 18 years old, and nearly 25 percent of high school seniors in the United States currently smoke cigarettes, compared to 20 percent of adults. Though cigarette smoking has declined since the 1990s, that decline has recently slowed, bringing smoking back into the spotlight.
At Conestoga, some students who smoke cigarettes congregate at “Smoker’s Corner,” an area just off of school grounds, to smoke before and after school.
“I don’t really like smoking at all,” says Students Against Destructive Decisions Club member Pooja Khandekar. “As long as [students at ‘Smoker’s Corner’] are not doing it illegally it’s fine I guess, if it’s not disturbing me. But still I don’t like how they do it, but there’s nothing I can do.”
Junior Paige Hill*, who is 17 years old, says that she smokes at the corner a lot, partly because she enjoys hanging out with the people there. Hill began smoking when she was nine years old, when a friend of hers asked someone for a cigarette so she decided to ask too.
“The benefits [of smoking for me] are stress reduction and it’s also that you get into the habit of doing something so it just puts you back into the swing of things, gives you something to do and it does speed up your metabolism so after meals if I feel particularly stuffed I can go out and do that,” she says. “And it’s also a social thing too.”
Hill smokes three to five times a day, and she says assuredly that she is addicted to cigarettes. According to Pennsylvania law, it is illegal for minors under 18 to buy cigarettes and illegal for someone to buy cigarettes for a minor, but it is not illegal for a minor to physically smoke or receive cigarettes. Since she is underage, Hill gets her cigarettes by either having an 18-year-old friend buy them for her or going to a store that she knows will not ask for identification.
“It’s a great lift. Especially after a long school day. You start your day off, and it’s been so long,” she says. “And I’ve battled with other addictions and it helps me stay away from those, so I guess [I smoke for] a lot of reasons.”
Hill says that she has struggled with drug abuse in the past, and that smoking has helped her recover, though it was not her only method of recovery.
“Just because [a smoker is] a teen doesn’t mean they’re automatically [smoking] to look cool and doesn’t make them a bad person,” she says. “It just means they have a bad habit but you don’t know why they have that bad habit. It could be something like me, like one of the reasons I smoke is I have other addictions I want to fend off. You don’t know the reasons behind it, so I think everyone’s going to judge but try not to act on those judgments.”
Several studies about smoking have revealed the growth of teen smoking in the past several years. Graphic Luke Rafferty and Anisa Tavangar/The SPOKE
According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 25 percent of Americans have less respect for someone who smokes, compared to just 14 percent in 1994.
Hill seems sure of every word as she says that she is not stupid or ignorant and knows that she is not invincible. She knows the risks of smoking, and is not trying to look cool. Smoking, she admits, is not the best thing for you but she says that there are unhealthy habits everywhere, like eating junk food, that are not typically labeled the way smoking is.
“There’s always something bad. There’s always going to be something people want to persecute,” she says. “If you don’t like it, if you don’t want to be hurt by it, then don’t be around it where you can get secondhand smoke. But it’s their body, it’s their choice.”
Facts of the matter
On March 19, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) began a 12-week ad campaign, which features graphic images of smokers who have had to suffer leg and finger amputations, battles with cancer and tracheotomies as a result of smoking cigarettes. The ads show the victims preparing hands-free communication devices, putting on wigs and fastening on prosthetic legs.
“We know from science that smoking can seriously impact your health,” a CDC Spokesperson says in an interview. “Sometimes it takes many years but very often it does not. And in our new media campaign you hear stories from people who are as young as in their early twenties who have suffered very serious consequences—loss of limbs, for example—due to the effects of smoking.”
The spokesperson says that though many teen smokers might not plan to smoke forever, a percentage will be unable to quit because an addition to nicotine is difficult to break.
“Some people get addicted [to smoking] very easily and others not so much,” the CDC Spokesperson says. “We know that generally speaking younger brains are more susceptible to nicotine addiction but not all teens are susceptible in the same way and at the same rate, so you might be very different than your best friend.”
According to James P. Stevenson, the Director of Thoracic Oncology at Penn Presbyterian Medical Center, an addiction to cigarettes now can lead to multiple cancers, including lung, breast, pancreatic, throat and bladder cancer, down the road. Heart disease, emphysema, peripheral vascular disease and kidney disease are just some of the other diseases that a smoker could suffer in the future.
“The fact is when you get up in those years when you’re in your 60s or 70s you still want to live for a lot of other reasons, and I see it all the tim,” Stevenson. “You’re fine and the next day you’re coughing up blood or you’re at the emergency room and can’t breathe, and low and behold you have lung cancer.”
In addition to future serious health implications, Stevenson notes that smoking is unique in that there is no way for it to be good for someone. Unlike drinking a glass of red wine once a day, which studies have shown improves heart health, smoking in moderation is still dangerous.
“I’d certainly like to see the day when cigarettes weren’t even legal anymore but I know that’s not ever going to happen,” Stevenson says. “There’s really no good that can come out of cigarette smoking.”
Principal Amy Meisinger hopes that recent attention to teen smoking on a national scale will help raise awareness and help students to make good decisions about smoking.
Smoking “can also be something that you don’t realize how harmful it can really be when you’re already down the path,” Meisinger says. “So I think that it’s only a good thing that it’s coming back into the public eye.”
But Hill has considered the future that smoking can lead to. She has seen relatives die of lung cancer and she has no desire to have similar problems.
“But I guess as much as I know [the dangers],” she says. “I am young and it’s hard to envision that now, even though I can.”
From how she sees it now, Hill is at peace with the fate that smoking might bring her.
“Once I get to [the point of dying from smoking-related diseases] if that’s my way to go then that’s my way I go. I’m going to die somehow,” she says. “If I die of say lung cancer, then it’s how I die. I’ll tell people to pull the plug, once it gets too bad. Honestly, the way I look at it, when your time is up, your time is up.”
Smoking at ’Stoga
Reflecting a change in society, smoking at Conestoga has gone from legal in certain parts of the school in the 1950s but now earns those who do so a $25 fine.
On school grounds, smoking is forbidden as a part of the drug-free school zone, meaning that any type of tobacco use is prohibited for students and adults alike. If a student is caught smoking or in possession of tobacco on school grounds, the Conestoga code of conduct says that they would be suspended for one day and charged a $25 fine. For each subsequent offense, a student would pay a fine that is $25 more and be suspended for an additional day. However, the school has no jurisdiction off of its property, meaning student can smoke at “Smoker’s Corner,” for example.
’Stoga’s outlook on smoking has changed drastically over time. In the 1950s, smoking was allowed in the breezeway with parent permission. However, Meisinger says that awareness for teen smoking is part of ’Stoga’s health curriculum, which includes information about good decision-making and leading healthy lifestyles. The issue of teen smoking is often discussed at Peer Mediation’s spring Health Fair, and the Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) Club urges students never to pick up smoking in the first place.
“The SADD Club discourages teens from even getting started on smoking simply because once the habit gets established it’s so hard to stop,” says senior and SADD Club president Sam Allon. But “SADD is a great place [for smokers] to come with questions and ask them of your peers and just not be judged about it.”
The possible consequences of tobacco use at school do not interfere with Hill’s smoking, but she says that she finds herself wanting to smoke at school, which might interfere with her focus on her schoolwork.
Senior Jack Collins*, who is 18 years old but recently quit smoking cigarettes, says that when he did smoke, it did not interfere with his work because he has senior privileges and could leave school to smoke if he liked. Though Hill started smoking at the age of nine, Collins began while at Conestoga and his friends played a part in sparking the habit that he has now kicked.
I started smoking “because my friends were doing it and they kind of—I don’t want to say peer pressured me into it—but kind of built on it,” Collins says.
Most of Hill’s friends smoke, or at least do so socially, and she says that at Conestoga and during high school in general smoking is more of a social habit for a lot of smokers that she knows.
“For a lot of my high school friends—a lot of them are under 18—I think you see [smoking] a lot more socially,” she says. “With my older friends, especially more college-age friends, it’s more on a regular basis, but I think that a lot of people just do it socially or when they’re drinking with friends.”
Cigarettes on the side
While drinking alcohol with friends off school grounds, students sometimes bring smoking into the mix.
“Drinking with smoking definitely [goes together],” Hill says. “It’s hard to explain. You crave it. I find that even non-smokers ask me for one afterward. I’d say probably because [being drunk] lowers your inhibitions a little. You’re more out for pleasure seeking. It’s social and it just feels good.”
Hill says that she thinks addictions to cigarettes and alcohol can go in either direction. She thinks that cigarettes can make students more open and then lead them to drinking.
According to a study released on Nov. 2 by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), researchers at Columbia University found tobacco can serve as a gateway drug by priming the brain for cocaine and possibly other addictions. The NIDA claims that the study could show that decreasing smoking rates would also help decrease the amount of illicit drug use in the future.
“I like to quote, ‘bad behaviors like company.’ There is good evidence that smokers tend to associate with drinking and substance use,” says doctor Janice Hillman of PennCare Adolescent and Young Adult Associates.
Collins would often drink when he was smoking cigarettes and says that smoking is absolutely done alongside drinking for some Conestoga students.
“I feel like most students will start doing drugs and then they’ll start doing cigarettes,” he says. “I feel like that’s how it is sometimes.”
Putting out the flame
Collins decided to quit smoking when his girlfriend at the time disliked it and because he knew how unhealthy his habit was. He would smoke a pack of cigarettes every two days before he quit. Collins struggles to discern whether he was addicted to smoking, saying that he wants to say he was not but he always wanted a cigarette.
“I feel better [now] because I’m not killing myself, basically,” Collins says. “And I can do more things like be more active.”
Since he quit smoking, Collins feels healthier. Unlike before, he says he can now walk up stairs without getting winded, his perpetual sore throat is gone and he is not coughing all the time. Collins was able to quit smoking by cutting down how often he smoked at first and then simply stopping altogether, which oncologist Stevenson says is a benefit to quitting smoking at a young age.
“As a teenager, if you’re smoking, this is going to be the easiest time to quit, so you shouldn’t need to rely on things adults need to use like a patch or some of these drugs,” Stevenson says. “So now is going to be the easiest time to just put them down and not have a physical craving to smoke.”
For those that smoke because of pressure from their friends, Stevenson says to look at smoking as what is best for your body and preserving your health for the future.
“All the things that you’re looking for now and planning toward going to college, getting a job, getting married, having kids—to smoke cigarettes is only going to potentially have that taken away from you if you got diagnosed with lung cancer when you were 40 years old or something like that, and that can happen. I see it not infrequently in young people who smoke,” Stevenson says.
According to the CDC Spokesperson, quitting smoking is difficult because it is a physical addiction.
“Being addicted to nicotine is no different than being addicted to heroin or alcohol,” the CDC Spokesperson says. “It is sometimes beyond your rational ability to control it because it is an actual physical addiction so it can be very difficult to break. But it can be done and we encourage everyone to go to smokefree.gov or call 1-800-QUIT-NOW and you can get free resources that will help you quit.”
Meisinger urges students who are smoking cigarettes to try to stop and that the sooner they can break the addiction, the better.
“It only gets more difficult as continued use,” Meisinger says. “So I would just say teens sometimes think that they’re just trying it and they don’t realize how addictive nicotine really is, and so my message would be stop sooner rather than later.”
When he smoked, Collins says that smoking helped solve his problems, like smoking when he was stressed. But he has since found healthier ways to manage his stress, like by practicing deep breathing.
Quitting is “going to be hard at first, but once you get over the first couple weeks then you can do it,” he says. “It just takes some determination.”
The students that Collins once smoked with are still his friends, because he says that smoking was not the only thing they have in common. But only one of Collins’s friends encouraged him to quit.
When I quit, “some were happy, some were making fun of me a little bit, but it’s whatever,” he says. “It’s my body.”
Hill is content to continue smoking into adulthood. But Collins still seems unsure. When asked if he will ever smoke again, he paused, unsure of his answer for the first time, before saying, “Probably.” He does want to stay off cigarettes moving forward and says that right now smoking is something that he really does not need anymore, but something is holding him back.
“I probably would smoke again,” he says. “ I know it’s not healthy for you, but if I can quit now I feel like I could again. But at the same time, it’s not good for you.”