09/06/2012 04:42 EDT | Updated 10/02/2012 04:26 EDT

Teen Smoking: Why Are Teens Still Smoking?


Craig and Marc Kielburger, co-founders of Free The Children and Me to We, seek solutions to significant social problems. In How-Now they explore an issue, solicit informed opinions or new ideas from experts, and then throw open the discussion to The Huffington Post Canada's readers.

This week: Why Teens Still Smoke. This week’s experts: Teens.

Teen smoking is an epidemic. It’s an epidemic, at least in part because adults — parents, health practitioners, the lawmakers regulating big tobacco marketing — can’t figure out how to get kids to stop. The latest attempt to make cigarettes less appealing to teens comes from Australia in the form of packaging without iconic brand images. Cigarette packs will still bear images — just gruesome photos of yellowed teeth, cancerous mouth sores and hospital beds, with tiny, standardized font indicating the brand.

Australia’s highest court recently ruled against big tobacco companies, who argued the proposed law violated their intellectual property rights, and so the plain-packaging will roll out in the country later this year.

But how will teens really react to generic packaging? Will smoking become less appealing to image-obsessed youth? Evidence from at least one study suggests that it will.

But everyone’s talking about “teens” like they’re an anthropological anomaly — or a new demographic to be studied safely from afar. Has anyone asked them? In a highly unscientific, un-generalizable study, our team at Free The Children took to the streets of Toronto to do just that. Here, young people huff and puff on smoking and branding.

Elizabeth Goulding, 20

Smoke? Yes

Verdict on plain packaging: ineffective

Ewwww! Oh my god, gross! [She has a visceral reaction to a picture we show her of the images on the generic pack]. I take a permanent marker to my packs because the pictures are too graphic. I’m not stupid, I know it’s bad for me. But whatever they do, I’m going to make my own choice. At the end of the day, I’m going to smoke. I understand for kids who are younger, maybe it would help them stop...I’ve been smoking for five years, and I guess I still would have [if she’d seen the plain packaging at the time] because people still go outside at once for a cigarette and make it seem cool. It’s not that the brands are cool, it’s the taste. I like certain brands because of the taste. This law won’t change anything.

Aaron Stern, 19 (asked not to be photographed)

Smoke? Yes

Verdict on plain packaging: ineffective

As I smoker, I can tell the difference between brands, because of the taste. I know a Belmont from a Pall Mall from a Next—they taste totally different. Smokers like certain tastes. The whole point [of the plain packaging] is for kids to stop, but kids will smoke what they like [the taste of]. Maybe it will be harder [with plain packaging] for them to figure out which brand they enjoy because they can’t tell the difference?

I’m not only loyal to one brand. And I don’t care if it’s blue or has a white stripe or whatever. And if I’m broke, I go for the cheaper brands.

[What might actually stop kids from smoking?]: Depends on the crowd they are hanging out with.

Jessica Mink, 19 and Marissa Malfara, 18

Smoke? Jessica: Once, in Grade 7. Never again.

Smoke? Marissa: Not in my (extended) lifetime

Verdict on plan packaging: effective

Jessica: Probably [the plain packaging] is going to be effective because it’s gross. Personally, I think it’s awesome because I don’t like smoking. Is this like when it was a big deal that Joe Camel was a camel and a cartoon—because of kids? Is this like that? I think that’s awesome. The photos are a good idea. Teens are so focused on what they look like, you’d think they wouldn’t want to look like that [referring to the graphic health warnings on cigarette packages currently in Canada].

Marissa: Like that ad with the meth, where they go [she puts on a singsong voice] one, two, three, four...snort some more, and the girl is in her bedroom in front of the mirror [and the commercial chronicles a healthy-looking girl’s graphic and ugly descent into the world of drugs. That was a commercial about meth, I think? I was definitely convinced — I would NEVER... actually, that ad was overplayed. But it was good.

What do you think? Does pack mentality prevail? Can these teens speak for all young people or will each youth react differently? Will Australia’s generic packaging drastically decrease teen smoking rates? Should it set a precedent for Canada?

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in seven cities across Canada this year, inspiring more than 100,000 attendees. For more information, visit or follow Craig on Twitter at @craigkielburger.

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