Solutions in Sight: Drugs
Teens Against Tobacco Use
A Conversation with
The InSite: Michele, how did you first get involved with T.A.T.U.?
Michele: I was approached at the school one day to go to a press conference where people were speaking about teens and tobacco. They had people speaking about smoking and the effects. There was someone there who used to smoke and who had lung cancer. It was a very moving presentation. They had the man's doctor there who was treating him. It was really sad because most people don't survive lung cancer, and he knows that he's probably going to die from it pretty soon. It kind of shocked us. You know a lot of us were teenagers, and there were some smokers there. It was really sad because after that whole meeting and all those facts were said to us, it was so dramatic, and I went outside and three of the girls who had attended the meeting were smoking! I thought to myself "How can you do that!?" So that got me really angry. So I wrote an article about it that got printed in our county newspaper.
During the meeting these girls had said, "We used to take drugs and smoking helped us kick the habit of drugs!"
TI: But nicotine is the most addictive drug there is!
Michele: I know! That was in my article. They said, "We're healthy now, we don't do drugs anymore. And I can quit smoking when I need to, but now it's something that I like." And I'm like "Listen to what you're saying! It's so addictive!"
TI: So did you get some response from your article?
Michele: I definitely did. And that's when I heard that the County Office of Tobacco Education was putting together a group of teenagers to go around to schools and speak to kids about smoking and the effects and any stories you have to tell. So I went to this meeting at Marin General Hospital and there was this group of about 15 teenagers all around my age. We spent about 6 hours there undergoing training and exercises together and learning how to communicate with each other. Learning facts about cigarettes and smoking and tobacco. It was really fun! It wasn't like anything I had to do for school. I thought it would be great to go around to schools. I mean if I could help anyone, well, why not?
TI: So what did you do after this meeting?
Michele: After the meeting we broke up into groups of four. And we had our own meetings at our own school once a week for a month, and we prepared. We wrote out a script of what we were going to say. We decided on 3rd and 4th graders, and then this woman who works with the county set that up. We went to the first school. It wasn't intimidating. It was a lot of fun. We were in front of the classroom and we did this whole presentation on smoking. One of the girls who was with us was an ex-smoker and she was only fourteen. You forget how much kids know, and their reactions were so encouraging that we just kept going around to a few more schools. It's a satisfying experience because you feel you're helping out other children.
TI: Why did you choose 3rd and 4th graders and not older kids?
Michele: Because, everyone is like, "Oh, you see older people dying of smoking, but most of them start when they are 13 or 14."
TI: But 3rd and 4th graders are not smoking, and most of them don't believe they ever will. But something happens...
Michele: Definitely. Well, it was interesting because a few of the kids in one of the schools we went to had been approached... this guy with a joint came up to one boy and said, "Do you want to smoke this?" At 9 years old! And that's what made us realize we were targeting the right age group because lots of them had older brothers and sisters who smoked. Parents who smoked. And if we can just keep reinforcing the facts that smoking is not good for you. And that smoking causes death and cancer and so much hardship...
TI: Every teenager knows that lung cancer is caused by cigarettes. But knowing that fact is not going into their decision making process. Reinforcing of facts is good, but it is not the core of the problem.
Michele: You're right. It's their own decision, and they are going to do what they want. Teenagers think they are invincible. They say they don't think so, but they do. They also say that they are thinking for themselves, but they don't accept the responsibility of their actions. Everyone says, "Yeah, I know it's supposed to be addictive, but I can stop."
One of my best friends smokes, and I don't understand why she does it. She's been smoking for maybe two years now. She started because her friends smoke. She tried a cigarette, and she tells me, "Oh, I only smoke when I'm around them, because it's just like a social thing to do. I know everyone says they can't quit, but I know in a year or two I'll want to quit." She's smoking more and more. It went from twice a week to like every day. It's so obvious, and I keep telling her, "Look at yourself! Look how fast you are going through cigarettes. And you're getting your friends to go buy them because now you can't buy them because of the laws." And it's just crazy how much hassle she goes through to hide it from her parents and all this secretive stuff, and I say to her, "Why do you do this? You keep saying, 'Oh, I can quit' but you can't! It's too late. You can't!"
TI: The law has recently changed in some places around the U.S. so that now it is illegal for teens under 18 to have a cigarette. Do you think that will make any difference?
Michele: Some of her friends have gotten the new fine [$75]. They were caught smoking in front of a fast food restaurant. And a cop came up and first they got a warning. They got a warning the second time. The third time they got a citation [a ticket]. And now their parents know about it. I've been so excited about this new law. They all think it sucks. And I'm just like... "Yes!" It's not solving the problem, but it's scattering a few bugs away.
It all comes back to the "invincibility" thing. The great thing about being a kid is having that feeling. You can't get rid of that feeling because when you lose that you lose your spirit. It's a part of innocence, really. Even though it's not, it is. But where is the balance?
You don't see athletes smoking! You don't see Michael Jordan smoking! People who put so much energy into what they do, they can't smoke because it drains them.
Movies are a big influence on teenagers, and everyone smokes in the movies. You see your favorite movie star start smoking, and she's thin and she's beautiful and you think, "Hey! I'll look like her if I do what she does." People get paid millions of extra dollars just to smoke in movies. It all goes into the advertising with the movies with the billboards. Everything affects us so much because as kids we're just so influenced by what we see and hear and what we feel.
TI: And the cigarette companies know that.
Michele: Yeah. They play on it. That's why the Joe Camel ads always have him looking down. So it's like you are looking up to an authority figure.
TI: Were there kids in T.A.B.U. who were ex-smokers?
Michele: Yeah! There was tons! Almost all teenagers smoke. Everyone smokes. All my friends. It's ridiculous. It's something to do.
TI: Have you ever done it?
Michele: I've tried it.
TI: And why did you choose not to continue smoking?
Michele: Oh, it was disgusting!
TI: But isn't it disgusting to everyone the first time?
Michele: I think so. Everyone I've talked to says, "The first time it's terrible. My throat hurts and blah, blah, blah." For some people it starts out as a social thing. You know, "I just had a cigarette because my friend did." And they started out just doing it because someone else was doing it, and they didn't realize how addictive it is, and now they do it all the time and they don't even realize it.
TI: Let's talk about helping kids quit. Do you address that?
M: We're doing presentations, and we're giving them information. We agree they have been overloaded with facts, but we still want to address it. We're trying to relate to them as young people. That was our main goal, for them to look at us in the eye. We're not too much taller than them, but we're tall enough that they have to look up to us. We wanted them to realize that we're close to their age. Just a few years ago we were in that classroom, and in those three or four years look what happened... this person became a smoker... things like that happen. And we addressed that. There's always 1-800-7NOBUTTS. They have help lines, counselors to talk to. They have packets that they send out to quit smoking. They refer you to [support] groups.
But the big thing is that you have to want to [quit]. You have to do it yourself. Other people may want it for you, but no one can do it for you. You have to make it happen.
Contact T.A.T.U. at [email protected]
Contact Michele at [email protected]
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last updated November 19, 2005
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