Originally created 05/22/01

Program will inform teens about smoking



BRUNSWICK, Ga., - As a Brunswick police officer drove down Norwich Street on a recent morning, Jessica Purvis lowered her smoldering Marlboro Light to thigh level and walked to the front of a truck to keep the officer from seeing the cigarette.

"They'll take it away," and they'll write a citation, she said of police reaction to underage smoking.

Teen smokers are going to have to dodge more than police officers.

A public health initiative in the six-county Coastal Health Unit has $250,000 from the state's share of the tobacco settlement to spend on a tobacco education and abatement program that, Director Martha Dismer said, will try to get young smokers to quit and persuade others to never start.

If that seems like a lot of money for a single program, David Page, a physician who recently took over as director of the Coastal Health Unit, said it really isn't.

"That's not a lot of money for a six-county, districtwide initiative that would affect tens of thousands of kids," he said. "Ninety percent of chronic smokers started before 18. ... There are rules against that, but they do it anyway."

Among those who cannot smoke legally are Jessica and other high school students who gather on corners outside Glynn Academy every school day for a last smoke before checking into homeroom.

Just eight days from her 18th birthday, Jessica won't have to keep her smoking habit secret much longer. She and her friends, who gather under the shade of a cypress, say they know about the warnings and health risks.

Brandi Nazzrie, 18, said: "When I think I'm going to die, I'd quit. Maybe."

She also said officials should worry about other things that are more dangerous to everyone.

"You've got people drinking alcohol. They can drive drunk and kill people," she said. "Why don't they raise the price of alcohol?"

She mentioned price because cost is the one thing the teen-agers said could compel them to stop.

"If they go up about three more dollars, I'll quit," said Jessica, who pays $3.75 a pack.

Dr. Page said that is not something he would propose.

"That's where your policy-makers come in," he said of elected officials who have the power to tax.

Some of the teens said they started out of a sense of rebellion, but others could tick off a laundry list of smoking friends and relatives. The challenge will be to find a way to pressure teen-agers into quitting or never starting, Dr. Page said.

Teen-agers respond to peer pressure and advertising, so there must be a way to get out the message that smoking is dangerous, Dr. Page said.

Ms. Dismer said she expects the program to be attacked by those who insist smokers have the right to smoke in public.

"You just stick to the facts. I think the facts are on our side," she said.

The facts are clear on secondhand smoke - not only does smoke contain numerous carcinogens, but it also can cause an acute reaction in people who have asthma, lung disease and heart disease, he said.

Brunswick physician Philip R. Saleeby, who treats lung diseases, has lobbied for smoking bans in public places in Glynn County for more than 20 years with limited success.

The Glynn County Commission has thus far refused to adopt a clean indoor air ordinance despite evidence the county's lung cancer rate is among the highest in the country. Unlike some other states, including Florida, Georgia has no state laws banning smoking in public places.

Smoking should have been banned in restaurants long ago because they're workplaces, and people who must work should not be compelled to work in unsafe conditions, Dr. Saleeby said.

He said such arguments are wasted on politicians.

"They think it's good for tourism, so they want people who work in restaurants to be exposed to it," he said.

The Glynn County Commission rejected Dr. Saleeby's request to pass a clean indoor air ordinance years ago, and commission Chairwoman Henri Woodman said the issue has not resurfaced. Ms. Woodman said she understands what it's like to have cancer, having been treated for it three times.

She also acknowledged struggling with trying to balance the personal rights of smokers with those working in restaurants.

"Where do you get past the issue of personal choice? If it's a workplace issue, this is something the federal government ought to determine," she said of a possible ban.

Ms. Woodman does not allow smoking at her kennel and grooming business north of Brunswick, and the county forbids smoking in all its buildings. Officials say other business owners should make those decisions themselves.

Of the 350 restaurants in the county, less than 30 are smoke-free, Dr. Saleeby said. One of them is Ryan's Family Steakhouse in Brunswick.

Dave Magnus, one of four managers at the restaurant, said the bottom line has not suffered from the policy.

"We have a few people who make the comment they're not coming back because we don't have a smoking section," he said. "Most people ask if we have a smoking section. We say, 'No,' and they say, 'Oh, good."'

Ryan's corporate office in Greer, S.C., is opening 15 restaurants a year and all are nonsmoking. The exception to the smoking policy is at the company's original restaurant just across the road from the corporate office, which opened 20 years ago.

"They've got such a clientele (that) they're not going to change," he said. Even Ms. Dismer, who is charged with trying to get people to stop, is a former smoker. Her smoking stemmed, she says, from peer pressure when she was a high school cheerleader.

She says she stopped because of pressure from her husband, Blaze, before they got married.

"Blaze said he would date a smoker but he would never marry a smoker," she said.

As to the teen-agers' assertions that they might as well die doing something they enjoy, Dr. Saleeby said they are brushing aside the reality of a lingering, painful illness.

"Dying is one thing. Suffering is another. They'll suffer 10 to 15 years before they die," he said.