I’ve been smoking since the age of fourteen. Just writing that sentence is not easy, given the shame it brings in regard to reflecting on all of the money, health, years and respect I believe I have lost due to my addiction.
I believe that young people are the most vulnerable when it comes to the ongoing targeting of tobacco and vaping industries. If I knew then about the true cost of being a smoker or vaper, I never would have started. My hope is that stories like mine and others will encourage the push for more education aimed at younger generations, especially African Americans and other people of color, who still have so much to gain and save by finding healthier avenues for socializing and coping with stress.
I began my tobacco habit across the street from my high school because I saw it as a way to be able to fit in. I was your typical awkward teenager who wasn’t that good at talking to people in the cafeteria. When lunchtime rolled around, I would always follow the one friend I had at the time to the park right by the school, where students of varying ages would sit or stand around in circles while smoking and talking. When I smoked for the first time, I thought it was gross. I hated the taste, the smell and the nauseating feeling it gave me. But I really wanted friends and didn’t know how to talk to people. I figured that if I had a cigarette in my mouth or hand, it would look a lot better than just standing there, silent and awkward.
Looking back, I know that I am not the only kid in that park who felt that way. Seventeen years later, I now have many friends who have expressed similar reasons for why they started smoking at a young age. The ironic part is that as adults, we now have to walk away from groups or step outside when we need to smoke. The social connections we craved as kids are now stifled by a nasty expensive habit that a lot of us are desperate to quit. I believe solving this problem starts with education, healthy coping skills and human connection. If I would have had those things, my lungs and finances would look a lot different.
Today, through my work with Young Invincibles, I see kids who are facing the same challenge — just wanting to fit in. And today, the tobacco companies are making it even easier by offering vaping products that are easy to hide and come in flavors that are familiar to them — like cereal, gummy bear, cotton candy and mint. These flavors taste and smell good! It is no surprise that they are attractive to young people. The rise of vaping within the current younger generation is troublesome. Kids believe that vaping is safer, when in reality, e-cigarettes deliver massive doses of nicotine, which is a highly addictive drug. About three out of four teen smokers end up smoking into adulthood, just like me, even if they intend to quit after a few years.
There are also risks of many different types of cancers and heart diseases from smoking. Many of my friends have begun to start families and feel shame smoking in front of their kids, for fear of setting a dangerous and potentially lethal example. I have a goddaughter who is my universe, so smoking is my dirty little secret that hopefully she will never know about. I have been working hard to quit so that by the time she is old enough to understand what smoking is, she will know that one of her heroes quit...and quit for a good reason.
From what I can see, the only way to stop kids from a lifetime of nicotine addiction is to not sell the flavored tobacco products that kids tend to like. That way, they will never start and have to deal with having to quit in the first place.
Ariel Tomlinson is an engagement fellow with Young Invincibles.
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