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Teenagers in Hellgate High School's tobacco cessation classes admit cigarettes have an ugly effect on their lives - convincing them to quit is another matter

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Teenagers in Hellgate High School's tobacco cessation classes admit cigarettes have an ugly effect on their lives - convincing them to quit is another matter
Chewing on a toothpick and a plastic straw, Hellgate High School students Tiffany Pryor, right, and Lea Abraham listen last Thursday during the school's tobacco cessation class.
Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

The room erupts after health specialist Mary McCourt asks how much a pack of cigarettes costs.

"Four dollars! Five dollars!"

They're all so young. Some hide behind dreadlocks, some behind heavy eye makeup. But their faces are fresh. Healthy.

Their conversation, though, has wrinkles as deep as trenches. Stained teeth. Yellow fingernails. Hacking coughs.

Anyone who's tried to quit smoking knows the drill.

"This week, I'm only going to have seven every day. Next week, I'll cut it back to six."

Only in this room, the people talking about quitting are supposedly too young to buy cigarettes in the first place.

These kids are teenagers and they're at tobacco cessation class at Hellgate High School.

If they were old enough, they probably would have voted against the dollar-per-pack tax increase last November - a tax intended to curb the percentage of teenagers who smoke.

With the new tax in effect since January, state health officials are watching to see if Montana follows the national tobacco tax trend - of a 6 percent decrease in the number of teens who begin smoking for every 10 percent increase in tobacco prices.

Tax or no tax, one thing is certain: a significant number of Montana teens are wrestling with tobacco addiction.

They're hooked. And many of them say the new tax is simply going to make them scrounge for a few more quarters in the sofa to buy their smokes.

That's one reason McCourt, of the Missoula City-County Health Department, and Kevin Mays, a Project SUCCESS counselor at Hellgate, spend an hour every Thursday with students who smoke - trying to convince them not to.

Some of the kids are in the class voluntarily, having realized they're addicted to tobacco and want to stop.

Most students in the class, though, got busted ripping butts by Shelagh More, the tireless school resource officer at Hellgate. They're attending the class as an alternative to other forms of punishment for being ticketed.

More, a liaison officer from Missoula's Police Department, is on a one-woman mission to eradicate illegal smoking in the vicinity of Hellgate High.

Whether the teens realize they're addicted coming into the class, almost every one of them is to some degree. And they're not alone.

The Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids estimates that nearly one in four Montana teens smoke cigarettes (to the tune of 3 million packs per year) and that 18,000 of them will die prematurely as a result.

But statistics are statistics and every kid in this class knew that smoking was deadly when he or she lit that first cigarette. The challenge for McCourt and Mays has been to find a different - and convincing - message.

Class one (Jan. 13)

"They're selling sexy people," says one teen.

McCourt and Mays have passed out magazines to the 11 teenagers in this week's class.

McCourt asks the class to look at the cigarette advertisements on the back covers (which, she adds, is the most expensive place to advertise because it's so visible) and tells them to describe what they see.

There's an independent woman looking wryly over her shoulder. And a tech-savvy dude with wild hair and even wilder sunglasses. And attractive cigarette girls in exotic locations.

McCourt picks up a magazine and shows the class one ad that really gets her dander up.

"She smokes. She doesn't have a seat belt on. She's in a convertible. She's a risk-taker," McCourt says. "It's all a bunch of baloney."

McCourt tells the class cigarette advertisements try to lure teens with glamour. She says tobacco companies sell a romanticized version of smoking to get teens hooked on their product; teens can resist this message once they realize our culture is grooming them to become smokers. She calls this "media literacy."

McCourt's brain is a stop-smoking file cabinet, with random phrases and informative tidbits tucked away to be retrieved at a moment's notice.

She tells the class recent studies indicate heavy smokers tend to have a harder time with math.

One teen counters with hearsay that smoking makes you more creative and artistic.

She asks where he heard such a ridiculous claim.

"My good friend Joe, Joe Camel," chimes in another teen, bursting into laughter.

There is no wrist slapping or finger shaking in this class; the atmosphere is one of open discussion. The teens sit at a circular table and eat sandwiches, slices of pizza and drink juice.

"We're trying to create a supportive community of people who are trying to quit and build a framework so it's not an all-or-nothing, daunting task," Mays says.

He uses a "quit ladder" drawn on the board that students use to measure their relationship with smoking and their desire to quit. Mays says this helps them visualize their progress on the road to a tobacco-free life.

Earlier in the class, students told Mays and McCourt where they were on the quit ladder and whether or not they lived up to the goals they had set the week before.

Some students pumped their fists in strained enthusiasm for their ability to cut out the after-school cigarette, while others admitted to blowing their goals with a sort of amused resignation.

Now, at the end of this week's class, it's time again for the students to set quit goals for the upcoming week.

One teen says she'll try to smoke less at parties over the weekend. Another says she's ready to call the Montana Tobacco Quit Line and set a quit date. Everyone cheers and claps.

Maura and Laura

Maura Budge and Laura VanDeRiet are peas in a pod. They share a lot in common, like white smiles, stick-straight hair and hip fashion sense.

They share a ride to school in the morning and a circle of friends. They also share a pack of cigarettes a day.

Maura and Laura have a bone to pick with the tobacco companies. They say McCourt's media literacy intelligence has made them realize their relationship with tobacco company executives - and they don't like that they're paying for people's swimming pools and BMWs while killing themselves.

That's one reason the girls have decided to buckle down and quit smoking. Besides, Laura's boyfriend doesn't like it when her hair smells like smoke and Maura recently started to wake up with a smoker's cough.

This isn't the first time the girls have tried to kick the habit; their quitting journey has been rife with the typical peaks and valleys.

The latest peak was when the girls were down to a couple of smokes a day before Christmas break. The latest valley came when, over the break, they went to Mexico where they had easy access to dirt-cheap cigarettes and upped their smoking to a pack a day each.

This frustrates them.

"You look at people who have been smoking for years and you think, 'I'm not going to be like that,' " Laura says. "You think that you can control it and you can't."

Laura encounters resistance on most fronts when it comes to her smoking; her parents hate it and so does her boyfriend. She sneaks her first cigarette of the day in her car on the way to school.

Maura's parents wish she wouldn't smoke, but her mother, who is also addicted, allows her to smoke inside the house because she wants to have an honest and open relationship with her daughter. The first thing Maura does after she opens her eyes in the morning is light up.

McCourt says smoking that early in the day is an alarming sign that a person's body is becoming severely addicted to nicotine.

This isn't news to Maura. She and Laura have advanced from sneaking cigarettes with older siblings and fishing butts out of ashtrays to taking regular cigarette breaks throughout the day to deal with nicotine cravings.

Maura holds her thumb and forefinger two inches apart.

"How can you let something this big control your life?" she asks.

Class two (Jan. 20)

The class is smaller this week and stress levels are so high they're almost humming. It's finals week at Hellgate High School.

The girl who was ready to call the Quit Line last week tells McCourt the first thing she plans on doing when she picks up her paycheck after school is to buy a carton of Camels.

Mary asks her to consider all the other things she'd be able to do with that $40, like buy some new clothes or go to a movie with friends.

The room is tense compared to last week and the mood is down. This doesn't surprise McCourt and Mays, though. They know finals week is when a lot of teens smoke more heavily than normal.

Their goal with this class is to make the students who did show up understand why they want to smoke.

It's a form of self-medication, McCourt says. She says people medicate their stress with nicotine, which causes stress when its level in their blood drops, which causes the craving for yet another cigarette.

Most of the teens in this week's class attribute their smoking to stress. One girl says even the thought of not having cigarettes to deal with stress stresses her out.

The girl tells McCourt that she and her mother have been trying to quit smoking together. The problem is, she says, her mother breaks down every weekend and buys a pack, and, feeling guilty about breaking their quit-pact, buys her daughter a pack too.

Mary's face tenses, but she remains pleasant.

"Does your mother want you to quit smoking?" she asks the girl.

"Yes," the girl answers.

McCourt and Mays combat outside factors like this constantly while trying to help the Hellgate teens quit smoking.

"I think it's harder for them than adults," McCourt says, adding that teens often don't have the same support levels adults do when quitting.

"The difference is where they're at developmentally in their lives," she says. "Teens have a lot going on in their lives and it feels weird for them to concentrate on just one thing like that."

She and Mays hand out suckers and cinnamon gum to the teens - to keep their mouths busy when they get cravings.

Then McCourt turns to scare tactics.

She pulls a jar of black liquid out of hiding and passes it around. This, she says, represents the tar that accumulates in the lungs of a pack-a-day smoker in one year. This is what causes emphysema.

She pulls a set of pig lungs out of a Tupperware bowl. The lungs are saturated in tar and have tumors attached to them. Mary explains how the tumors are the cancer caused by the chemicals in tobacco smoke.

One girl gags when black liquid from the pig lungs drips onto the table.

Tiffany

Tiffany Pryor wears beanies and baggy clothes.

She insists she's on top of her tobacco habit because she has a type of binge-and-purge relationship with smoking; one day she'll go on a bender and smoke herself into oblivion, then she won't touch a cigarette for a week.

Tiffany goes to tobacco cessation classes at Hellgate voluntarily because McCourt has made her start worrying about her lungs.

Tiffany's passion is singing, and the one thing that scares her about her habit is the possibility she'll ruin her voice and get kicked out of choir.

Until last week, Tiffany preferred to think of herself as a "social smoker" who lit up whenever she was hanging out with friends who were doing the same.

After last week's class, though, Tiffany sat down and really thought about her smoking and realized she self-medicates for stress.

"It tastes pretty bad," she says. "I don't know why I keep doing it, but it tastes pretty bad."

Tiffany started smoking when she was 13. She says she started because she had a crush on Joe Camel's attitude - laid-back, don't-care, funky, cool.

"When I was younger, he seemed like a camel version of the coolest guy you could ever meet," she says.

Her cigarettes of choice are Camel "fatties" (wides), although she might start buying generic brands with the price increase, she says.

Tiffany has been spinning her tires with her quitting journey - stuck somewhere between "I don't have a problem, and I don't want to quit" and "I have a problem, but I still don't want to quit" on Mays' quit ladder.

McCourt says one of the hardest things is for teen smokers to come to the realization that they're allowing a drug to influence their lives, of admitting to owning those three dreaded words: I'm a smoker.

Tiffany, who still believes she has the steering wheel, says she keeps going to cessation class because the knowledge McCourt and Mays give will be valuable when she does decide to commit to living tobacco-free. Right now, though, Tiffany doesn't feel the benefits of quitting outweigh the hassles.

"I just don't want to," she says.

Class three (Jan. 27)

There are new faces this week: teenage boys. Quit classes earlier this month attracted mostly girls. The boys in this week's class change the chemistry between the students and the adults.

The boys laugh and joke about their smoking habits and have stand-offish comebacks to almost everything McCourt and Mays have to say. When the conversation turns to them and their tobacco addictions, the boys cross their arms and clam up.

McCourt and Mays shift gears.

Instead of using the "this is what you need to do to quit" approach, they use the "if you want to quit, here's how to get started" approach. This effectively puts the ball in the boys' court.

One boy in the class chews the equivalent of a pack of cigarettes in snuff every day.

One boy has a baby on the way and admits to being worried about the example he will set for his child.

The third boy, Dean Christian, goes through a pack of cigarettes a day between himself and the hordes of friends who bum smokes from him.

Dean's favorite time to smoke is on the car ride to school; he usually lights up when he starts warming up his car.

Everything about smoking and the class seems incredibly funny to the boys and they don't seem particularly interested in quitting.

McCourt introduces the teens to what she calls the "delay tactic." She says nicotine cravings will subside if you can wait them out.

She talks about smoking triggers - like driving in a car or drinking alcohol - and says the best thing to do when these situations set off cravings is to keep occupied for 10 or 15 minutes.

She encourages the students to wait until after their morning shower to have the first cigarette of the day or to wait an hour after school lets out before having the after-school cigarette. She tells Dean he should try to cut out his cigarette on the drive to school for a week and see what happens.

The stereotype of teens thinking they're invincible seems to hold some water when it comes to cigarette smoking; most kids in the class insist that they have plenty of time to quit smoking when they're older.

What they don't seem to realize is "older" becomes later and later in many instances: According to Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids statistics, 90 percent of adult smokers started before they were 18.

The teens in this class seem to think that, if they really wanted to, they could drop their bad habit like a bad habit.

McCourt and Mays show them incriminating video segments condemning tobacco advertising campaigns that target underage smokers. They show videos where people read letters written by family members dying from smoking-related illnesses.

One woman reads an excerpt written by a family member dying from emphysema.

"They say smoking is an adult decision," the woman wrote. "Today I am dying because of a decision I made when I was 16."

The video ends and the room is silent. Nobody is laughing anymore.

Dean

Dean Christian has effectively eliminated his drive-to-school cigarette, just like McCourt suggested.

It hasn't made a difference in the number of cigarettes he smokes every day, though, which is still usually at least 10.

He is only 17 and has the rest of his life to quit. At least that's his reasoning. He says he doesn't plan to quit until he's finished attending college to become an architect.

Dean is an avid skier, which is part of the reason he wants to go to school in Colorado. Skiing, though, has become a little tougher with the shortness of breath he's beginning to experience from his smoking habit.

"It's nasty," says Dean, a viewpoint he's had since he took his first drag four years ago.

But the nastiness hasn't kept Dean from smoking.

"It's part of my life now," he says. "I can't imagine life before it."

Dean first tried smoking when one of his older brother's friends told him to stop knocking it until he tried it. (Dean's older brother doesn't approve of him smoking.)

He took a drag and "it buzzed the hell out of (him)."

Since that first drag, he has progressed to a social smoker who lit up with friends and co-workers during cigarette breaks to a person who smokes alone in his free time.

It used to be that he'd get in big trouble with his parents when he came home smelling like cigarettes. Now his parents have resigned themselves to his smoking - to the point that he's allowed to smoke outside when he's at home.

Dean has always been very aware of the health risks of smoking cigarettes.

He still thinks about posters showing black lungs and faces ravaged by mouth cancer.

He says every teenager has seen the posters, heard the statistics and read the education pamphlets.

He says there isn't anything more the government can do to educate teens about the dangers of tobacco use, that it all boils down to a matter of personal choice.

"I just kind of stopped caring," he says. "I know how bad it is. I just don't have enough incentive to quit.

"I'll be healthy later."

Chelsea DeWeese is a journalism student at the University of Montana and an intern at the Missoulian

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