The latest state survey of Iowa junior high and high school students finds just 10 percent are regular smokers. That’s eight percent lower than the smoking rate among Iowa teens and pre-teens back in 1999 and way below the national average of 23 percent for that age group.
Cassie Peterson of Leon, president of the “Just Eliminate Lies” statewide student group that discourages kids from smoking, smoked her first cigarette when she was eight. “Growing up, I kind of thought that the product was a common habit of society. I saw it so often in my own home that it just seemed natural…I pilfered my first cigarette from my mom’s ashtray while she was sleeping,” Peterson says. “I thought smoking a cigarette would make me a little bit more like my mom — my role model.”
She became a regular smoker rather quickly. “Four years after my first puff, the health impact on my body became obvious,” Peterson says. “While I was running an 800 in track by the time I reached the finish line my hands were clammy, my face was flushed and my entire chest was just on fire. I couldn’t breathe. I realized that I was suffering from the health effects of tobacco use rather than from the exhaustion of running.” She quit smoking then — at the age of 12 — and became an anti-smoking crusader.
“I’ve made it my goal to influence my peers, my cousins and just regular kids that I meet,” she says. “The tides are changing. Society wants to know more about this product, this product that kills over 400,000 Americans every year.”
Iowa Department of Public Health director Mary Mincer-Hansen credits the reduction in youth smoking in Iowa to community-level programs which discourage kids like Cassie from taking up the smoking habit. She cited the “Girl Power” program in Harlan and Onawa which builds self-esteem and character.
Mincer-Hansen also singled out “Project Alert” in Albion and Pekin, which involves parents in the prevention activities. “We’ve made great progress in Iowa, but we must remain committed,” Mincer-Hansen says. “Bringing a community together makes a difference.” Eighty-two percent of the Iowa kids surveyed had never smoked a cigarette.
Governor Tom Vilsack says the survey found the use of not only cigarettes but marijuana and other illegal drugs is on the decline among Iowa youth. “So this is a total community effort which is totally changing the landscape for our children,” Vilsack says. “This is certainly good news.” Over 98-thousand sixth, eighth and 11th graders in Iowa were surveyed in 2005. It found smoking rates among Iowa youth on decline, as well as a decrease in the amount of binge drinking.
However, about one-third of the Iowa high school juniors surveyed said that during the past month, they’d drunk at least five alcoholic beverages on at least one occasion. “The problem is not solved…but the progress is in the right direction,” Vilsack says. Ninety-four percent of the teens surveyed said they’d never smoked pot.
Marvin Van Haaften, director of the Governor’s Office on Drug Control Policy, gives parents credit. “One of the neat things the Partnership for a Drug-Free America says is that any parent — that can be a grandparent, that can be a mentor — (who) on a regular warns their children about the dangers of substance abuse, guess what?” Van Haaften says. “That child is 50 percent less likely to experiment with drugs.”
Van Haaften also praises Iowa police and sheriff’s departments for doing tobacco compliance checks to see if stores are selling cigarettes to minors. The wide-ranging student survey — with 120 questions — is conducted every three years. In 2005, over 98-thousand students from 350 Iowa high schools answered the questionnaire.