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Schools' Latest Fight with Big Tobacco (the Cigarette Industry)


Cigarette smoking among teenagers has drastically declined in the last two decades. But ask school administrators if they are celebrating, and the answer is clearly “no.”  While magazines of the past advertised the wrinkly Marlboro cowboy, astride a horse, the image of today’s “smoker” has changed drastically. And teens have been the primary target of these alluring, new ad campaigns.

That orange and white smelly tube of leaves and styrofoam---the cigarette as we knew it--- is now chided as “something your parents did.”  Whereas vaping and e-cigarettes have made their way into today’s social landscape of middle schoolers and teens.  These smoking devices, it seems, do not have the same stigma that is attributed to the traditional cigarette. Even worse, myths abound that those that do not contain nicotine are not  harmful to your health. (This is not true. In fact many toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde are a regular recipe of the mixture, even for those that claim to contain no nicotine).

 And, yet, kids know that smoking---all smoking--- is bad. They have gotten the message that it is “gross”…and causes lung cancer. So how did the cigarette come back to the mouths of school kids, albeit in a disguised, stealthy form?  

The tobacco industry reinvented a nicotine-delivery system that seamlessly blends in with teens’ everyday, digital life-style.  

e-cigarettes (as well as other tools which emit a vapor instead of smoke) look like a cell phone battery or flash drive. Sleek metal or plastic cartridges have become a perfect compliment to teenagers’ world of electronics, digital media and cell phone use. In fact, many are re-chargeable, just like a cell phone. In effect, the fixation / routine use of one’s cell phone has been brilliantly leveraged (even if only subconsciously) by Big Tobacco to solidify this new type of smoking.   

These devices also feature flavors such as strawberry or mint along with sets of pen-like devices that look very much like colored markers. It is painfully obvious that children and teens are being targeted by these ads!   Sadly, the ad campaign is working.

In 2015, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that e-cigarette use among high school students had increased 900 percent, and nearly half of all e-cigarette users had never smoked traditional cigarettes.

Headaches for Principals and School Personnel Include:

  • Difficulty catching students using at school because some devices are odorless and do not emit smoke! (Hint: Check the bathroom stalls!)
  • The realization that those who partake are 4x more likely to then go on to smoke other substances!
  •  Social contagion means that one user is very likely to influence or coax their peers into trying it as well! After all, doing something naughty is a lot more fun with your friends.

 Strategies to Curb the Problem – Thoughts to Consider

  1. Take the Mystique out of the E-cigarette. If students can be led through an honest, open dialog with adults they trust, a good exercise would be to collectively identify and call out the ads as deliberately trying to lure them into something unhealthy. Empower the young people by supporting attitudes of healthy skepticism and suspiciousness for all ads from Big Tobacco. Re-iterate the truth – these are harmful and addictive!
  2.  Create a Culture of healthy bodies. Drawing upon the anti-bullying model of creating a school-wide culture of kindness and respect for all, likewise, the value system of making healthy choices can permeate any campus.
  3. Don’t Over-Shame Those Who have indulged. This is a tricky piece of advice. While all rules should have consequences when they are broken, adults must also understand that teenagers have developmental needs that, ironically, make them prone to try the very things that they are supposed to avoid. This is especially compounded when a friend or peer is tempting them.

Tied into the social dynamics of being a middle or high schooler, this epidemic is even more complex. (Think peer pressure). An attitude of respect and understanding will pave the way for honest disclosure and problem-solving.  Consequences and loss of privileges can still be enforced, but deal with the misbehavior in a respectful way with unconditional, positive regard. A healthy, open dialog about this continuing epidemic is essential. And this is because there does not appear to be an end in sight any time soon!

Written by Mandy Stern

Mandy Stern is a board-certified, licensed Educational Psychologist, with national certification in school psychology.

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