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By Alexandra Hehlen and Owen Bradbury Aranda
Teen Pulse Staff Writers
From what teenagers see on the big screen and in the media, cigarettes have often been presented as an alluring product for young adults.
In many ways, the stigma associated with smoking has lead many young people to try their first cigarette as an act of rebellion or because it seems the “cool” thing to do. Smoking is addictive because of the high nicotine content produced by burning tobacco.
Even more, “Nicotine improves alertness, helps you concentrate, reduces anxiety, it boosts your mood, it can even relieve minor depression a little bit, can be a little bit euphoric and it suppresses your appetite. Sounds like a fantastic drug, right? Wrong,” said Dr. Eric Bernstein during his presentation for the March 19 Kick Butts Day at Los Alamos High School.
Bernadette Lauritzen, the Prevention Specialist at LAHS, brought in Bernstein and organized the day to spread the word about the dangers of teenage smoking.
“Kick Butts Day is a nationwide day to get youth to stop smoking. While ‘Butt’ references tobacco, our big issue here is e-cigarettes and the lack of awareness about how bad the nicotine is for youth. While I realize the junk that is found in the tobacco, e-cigs can pose a threat too” Lauritzen said.
Cigarettes have been around for a long time, but electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes, have just recently started gaining popularity among teenagers.
According to Bernstein, these smokeless devices contain liquid “tobacco extract. And what tobacco extract means, nobody knows. It is vaporized into a really, really small particle….we think it’s probably less dangerous than smoking a cigarette and I think that’s probably true.”
The ambiguity surrounding Bernstein’s explanation arises from the fact that e-cigarettes, unlike cigarettes, are not regulated on a federal level.
Additionally, “We don’t have long term data because people get cancers 10 years out, 20 years out. [E-cigarettes] haven’t been around that long,” Bernstein said.
While e-cigarettes are known to contain some ingredients that are in cigarettes, the other thing doctors and specialists know for sure is that if someone starts smoking e-cigarettes, “... you’re still getting addicted to nicotine, which then puts you at very high risk to become a smoker,” according to Bernstein.
Cigarettes contain addictive nicotine, which, according to Bernstein “... is very similar to something called the cetocolene. It helps for memories and it increases alertness and concentration. It increases glutamate, which is used to store memories, and it also helps you to remember this sensation of pleasure.”
Smoking cigarettes comes with many negative, lethal health effects, including various cancers.
“If we catch it early, we can cut off part of the organ or the whole organ, but most of these organs are nice to have. More often than not with lung cancer, bladder cancer, it is already spread by the time you find out you have it. So that means you’re going to die of that cancer at some point. I can extend your life, but I can’t fix the problem,” Bernstein said.
Although smoking may seem harmless now for a teenager, a look at the future offers dim prospects.
“Tobacco … causes 480,000 deaths a year in the U.S. I had 200 patients a year die. More of them died than I was able to cure. One-half of all smokers will die from smoking,” Bernstein said.
Stopping the cigarette smoking habit in the teenage years offers a promising alternative. According to Bernstein, “If you smoke now and you quit, on average you will get 13 extra years of life compared to if you continue to smoke. And not only will you get 13 extra years of life, but you’ll get 13 extra years of good life. Not 13 extra years of being on oxygen, and having to call people because you’re having a hard time getting across the house.”
Although the exact health effects of smoking e-cigarettes are not known, Bernstein does know that “... the amount of nicotine people can get out of an e-cigarette over time is really high, so you can get a lot of withdrawal symptoms from them.”
Another similar worry comes with hookah, a popular alternative to smoking cigarettes.
“Hookah is just flavored tobacco that you smoke through a water pipe, and because it is smoked through a water pipe, you don’t get a lot of the harshness of a cigarette. Because of that, people can actually smoke a lot more tobacco with a hookah and you can get a lot more of the addictive chemicals and harmful chemicals into your body in the same amount of time,” Bernstein said.
Rob Hipwood, the health teacher at LAHS, has firsthand experience with teaching students about smoking.
“I think one thing that sort of changed in the time frame when I’ve been teaching health is I don’t think students deny that it’s a bad habit or an unhealthy habit; it doesn’t seem that that portion of tobacco education is key anymore, of going over that it does X, Y, and Z. It’s more how can you get those kids to quit,” Hipwood said.
Keeping students from smoking with e-cigarettes or hookah, both of which Bernstein calls “gateway drugs” because they often lead to cigarette addiction, is a preventative measure.
For teenagers who already are smoking, quitting is the best option, but is harder than it sounds. Some smokers have relapses or cannot handle the side effects of quitting.
“You will have nicotine withdrawal. So if you are dependent on nicotine, you will then get very intense nicotine craving, you will be irritable, you will get headaches, you will have a mood that is below your baseline when you started smoking,” Bernstein said.
With dedication, these side effects will eventually fade away. Even though quitting takes strength, teenage smokers do not have to do it on their own.
Lauritzen organized Kick Butts Day to reach out to teenagers, but she also does even more to help students who are smokers.
“I have a 10-session program called, ‘N-O-T on Tobacco,’ to help reduce or stop smoking, or in the terms of e-cigarettes, ‘vaping.’ You don't have to be caught and sent to my office. I'm here for anyone that needs some skill building and hard candy to help them along.”
As the Prevention Specialist at LAHS, Lauritzen said she can help addicted teenagers. Students looking to talk can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her advice for smokers: “When I was about your age, my father smoked, which eventually led to be on oxygen and homebound. One day I said to him, ‘If you don't stop smoking, you'll never live to see your grandchildren.’ Sadly the addiction of nicotine is a powerful thing. He died at 53, never seeing his three beautiful grandsons, one of which will graduate from LAHS this year. It isn't easy in the beginning, but it can be done and it is so much easier when you are young.”