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Free aid for teen smokers

Local health department offers smoking cessation program for youths

July 12, 2010|By TIFFANY ARNOLD
  • Kicking the smoking habit is hard for smokers of any age, but underage smokers face a different set a challenges when trying to quit.
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If there were ever a perfect day for Courtney Smith to quit smoking for good, Thursday would have been that day.

"If it were just that easy," said Smith, as she puffed on a cigarette outside Hagerstown Community College's library in the middle of one of the hottest days on record this summer.

Like millions of adults, Smith, 19, of Hagerstown, started smoking when she was a teenager. According to state data, one out of every five teens in Washington County is an underage tobacco user. And like many young adults, Smith wishes she had never started smoking.

Now, quitting is the hard part.

There is free help for teens if they are willing and ready to quit. But getting underage tobacco users to quit seems to be the challenge.

Washington County Health Department offers a series of free tobacco cessation sessions just for teens. But no underage smokers have completed the series of teen cessation sessions since classes were offered in the fall 2009, said Amanda Distefano, drug and alcohol abuse prevention specialist with the health department.

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"I don't think they're really ready to quit," Distefano said.

The prevalence of underage tobacco use

The concern is that without intervention, teen smokers can be expected to continue smoking into adulthood. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that most of the 45 million adult smokers in the United States picked up their first cigarettes as teenagers.

In Maryland, 16 percent of underage smokers used tobacco products in 2008, the most recent data available, according to information provided by Joan Stine, who is the director of Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's Center of Health Promotion and Education.

Underage tobacco use was more prevalent in Washington County than in the state that year: 20 percent of Washington County residents younger than 18 consumed tobacco, according to the data.

Why it's hard to just say no

Quitting is hard for any one, age 15 or 55, but underage smokers face a different set a challenges when trying to quit. Unlike adults, there is no patch, no pill, no prescription available to underage smokers.

Distefano said the Health Department doesn't offer smoking-cessation medications to teens because the products contain nicotine.

"There really is no cessation aid," Distefano said. "They have to be willing to taper their use or go cold turkey. But when you think about it, it's about your mindset. When you're determined, you can do any thing when you put your mind to it."

Nicotine is what makes tobacco addictive. Breaking a tobacco addiction can involve medication, smoking cessation classes and behavioral therapy, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a division of the National Institutes of Health.

But tobacco products also contains dangerous ingredients. Tobacco use is considered the leading preventable cause of death, according to the CDC, which attributes 443,000 deaths a year to cigarette smoking.

Smith said she's tried to quit several times but hasn't had any luck. She said she knows it's bad for her health. A student and an out-of-work single mother -pregnant with her second child -Smith said she smokes when she feels stressed.

"I don't like smoking," said Smith, who started smoking regularly at 13. "It embarrasses me.

Limited resources for teen smokers

Also, there aren't many smoking cessation programs that specifically target teen smokers.

"The options are very limited, unfortunately," said Dana Moncrief, community health educator for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She oversees two of the state's youth-led anti-tobacco coalitions for teens and college students.

Stine said the state has less money available to fund tobacco cessation and prevention efforts.

Washington County Health Department has a $107,136 budget to fund its anti-tobacco programing, compared with the $404,505 it received for the 2009 fiscal year, said Mary McPherson, tobacco coordinator and program manager for the Washington County Health Department's Health Services division.

McPherson said that as a result of crimped funds, the health department has decided to spend its entire anti-tobacco budget on cessation, or getting people to quit.

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