City Health: Young smokers? Ho hum, but the IDF is concerned

“If we buy a pack, all our friends will bum cigarettes from us. Why should we spend our money on them?” says a 15-year-old smoker.

The man at the cash register in the little 24/7 supermarket in the city center watched the two teenagers who had just left his store, nodding his head in a mixture of anger and contempt. Realizing I was standing there, he mumbled something about youth nowadays and their bad habits, concluding aloud with “Where are their parents, I wonder?” The two teens, still standing outside the shop, didn’t seem at all embarrassed but, rather, frustrated by the refusal of the cashier to sell them a few cigarettes.
I tried to engage in conversation with them, with very little success. The pair – residents of Pisgat Ze’ev, 14 and 15 years old – calmly admitted that they have been smoking for at least two years, perhaps even a little more, but specified that they never bought packs themselves.
Asked if it was as a precaution to prevent themselves from becoming addicted to smoking, the two laughed at me. “If we buy a pack, all our friends will bum cigarettes from us. Why should we spend our money on them?” explained the elder of the two.
“Teenagers smoke – that’s not an innovation!” asserts Shimon, a veteran youth instructor who specializes in prevention of smoking and drug use among teenagers. “They smoke for various reasons: to impress girls, to feel accepted among their peers, to get more self-confidence.
“The problem is that at these ages, there is no way someone is going to convince them that it is harmful to their health. Teenagers simply cannot grasp the idea of the need to protect their health while they are so young and healthy.”
At the Jerusalem IDF draft office, there is high awareness of this problem. Since 2007, the army has conducted studies among city youth (of pre-draft age) as to their reasons for smoking and how this can be prevented or at least reduced.
Some 1,067 17-year-olds – 707 males and 360 females – participated in that year’s survey, which found that over a quarter (25.7 percent) are smokers (26.2% of males and 21.1% of females).
It also came out that the highest rates of smoking were found among young adults whose parents were of Middle Eastern origin, with the lowest among sons and daughters of Ethiopian olim. The highest rate for all was found among children of single-parent families (1.28% more than among children of two-parent families).
But more interestingly, 58.2% of the participants in the survey answered that they had no precise reasons why they smoke, while 30.3% admitted that they smoked as a result of social pressure and 8.4% said that they simply imitated their smoking parents.
While religious junior high schools do not allow students to smoke on school grounds, state secular schools allow smoking to a varying degree. Most of them instruct students to smoke only in restricted areas in the schoolyards, many of them not before 1 p.m.
Michael and Avi, today young adults, recall their days at one of the prestigious junior high schools in the city regarding smoking habits.
“Many of the boys smoked; very few girls did too then,” recalls Michael. “Everybody in the school staff knew that we used to smoke, but it was not something we could talk about with our teachers.”
Avi adds that in fact, while teachers and most of the parents knew, there was no way it could be handled, “since it was like something that didn’t really exist.”
Teachers and many parents avoided dealing with the problem for lack of a clear idea of what could be done.
But, add the two, it didn’t take long before, somehow, the topic was more openly discussed.
“By the time we reached 11th grade, we were already allowed to smoke in the afternoons in a remote part of the schoolyard,” says Avi.
Most of the concern of educators and instructors in the municipal education administration and the association for preventing use of drugs was focused on the fear that from cigarettes, many of these teenagers would move to drugs.
Shimon, who for years followed the broadening of smoking habits and the move from cigarettes to grass and other kind of drugs among teenagers, says that during the late ’90s, the relative ease of getting (through Old City dealers) grass and hashish paved the way for a large number of young people in the city, “including those who continued to go to school and live at home and even wanted to enroll in prestigious combat units in the IDF.”
“In our work to persuade them to discontinue the use of drugs, this issue of joining prestigious units in the army was a great asset to convince many of them, but it didn’t help as well regarding smoking cigarettes.”
Recently, the Knesset passed a bill forbidding the sale of single cigarettes (instead of a whole pack), trying through that to reduce the prevalence of smoking.
Asked if it does work on the ground, the cashier at the minimarket said: “When they can buy two or three cigarettes only, it’s easier.... For some of them, if they can’t get one or two cigarettes at a time, finding a way to get the money required for a whole pack won’t be a problem.”