The first time junior John Bunch smoked a cigarette, he was 16 and he’d gotten it from a friend in high school.
Smoking wasn’t strange to Bunch. He remembers many members of his family smoking throughout his childhood, but he hadn’t begun smoking himself until that day in high school.
“Are you sure you want to do this? Because you can get hooked to it,” Bunch recalls his friend saying.
He remembered telling them that he’d be fine but now 21 and studying psychology at Seattle Pacific University, he’s still smoking.
“Look at me now,” he says with a laugh. He said that now, he smokes about half a pack a day, often times to cope with stress.
The story of a teenager beginning to smoke in high school isn’t a new one. According to Secretary of Health in Washington John Wiesman, 90 percent of adult smokers tried it first as teenagers, commonly receiving their first cigarette from friends during high school.
“We know from our surveys that the majority of them get their tobacco from what we call their social network,” Wiesman said, “social network” being a term that includes coworkers and friends.
He says that for many smokers it’s personal, and a family history of smoking isn’t uncommon. Wiesman remembers being sent to buy cigarettes for his mother when he was 18, something that ended up having the reverse effect on him and strengthened his resolve not to smoke.
“I hated as a kid having to go buy my mom’s cigarettes,” he said. “I was embarrassed that people thought I was smoking [since] I was about wanting to be healthy, free from substances.”
Wiesman has been pushing for House Bill 1054 and Senate Bill 5025, which is currently in its third year in the legislature attempting to be passed and one that would raise the purchasing age of tobacco from 18 to 21 in Washington.
The main targets of the bill are high schoolers. Wiesman said that moving the age up from 18, an age where many are still in high school and are able to purchase tobacco for younger students, will hopefully decrease the number of high school aged students beginning to smoke and the number of adult smokers over time.
Maria, a junior at SPU who wishes to use a pseudonym for this article, said that she would have been “pissed off” if this bill had been passed when she was in high school. Like Bunch, she’d begun smoking as a teen and used to smoke socially with her friends.
However, if this bill could have stopped her from smoking anyway, she said that would be a good thing. She finds herself as a supporter of the bill now, at age 20.
“I think if it could be prevented, it’s a good thing honestly,” she said. “I started [when] I took a cigarette from my cousin when I was 13 … me and my cousin just tried it together, maybe around 12 or 13.”
Maria says she smokes about four to five cigarettes a day. Like Bunch, she says members of her family smoked, as well as many students in her high school, so it was something she’d grown used to seeing, and that’s partially why it entered her life.
“A lot of people in my high school smoke, so you could just walk up to someone and get a cigarette,” Maria says. “When we wanted to buy cigarettes, we would call all our friends that were 18.”
Both Bunch and Maria also cited their workplaces encouraging their smoking habits. Both were given “smoking breaks” throughout their work day.
“It was a utilitarian thing to smoke because you got 10 minute smoke breaks every hour, so I smoked then,” Bunch says.
For Maria, smoking evolved over time.
“It was social at first, but then it became a habit,” she says. “If I was home by myself at night and doing homework, I would go outside really quick and have a smoke while my parents were sleeping.”
Bunch says that smoking is more than just social for him as well. He uses it to relieve high stress levels, something that he used smoking for in high school as well.
For Wiesman, cases like those of Maria and Bunch make him see the bill as necessary. He says the long term effects, especially the effects impacting those under the age of 25 while the brain is still developing, are harmful.
He says that a big part of the reason that tobacco wasn’t raised to 21 sooner was because that wasn’t well known in the past, but now that it is, laws should change accordingly.
“Our response is brain science has advanced,” he says. “We now know very clearly the dangers of nicotine. We want to make it equal with other things that we said, ‘hey, we should wait until 21.’”
While it’s still too early to tell what exact effect bills raising the age to 21 passed in California and Hawaii will have over time as they’re still new, Wiesman pointed out that raising the age in parts of Massachusetts has proven effective.
“Back in 2005, Needham, Massachusetts, was the first locality to implement this, and they really had some great success,” Wiesman said. “Within the first five years, they decreased tobacco use in high schoolers by 50 percent.”
However, Bunch doesn’t see the passing of this bill as the right response to teenage smoking.
“You’re trying to cut teenage smokers but the thing is when you turn 18 … you become an adult,” he said. “At that point it’s our right to do it … if I can go to prison and if I can go to war and if I can get killed in both sectors, I think I should have the right to smoke.”
One of Wiesman’s responses to those opposing the bill with the reason that at the age of 18 you can go to war is that we should want potential soldiers to be healthy. However, Bunch disagrees with this reasoning as well.
“Being young, you don’t have emphysema, you don’t have lung cancer, you don’t have all the issues that later in life smoking causes, and it’s a stress reliever,” he said.
Instead, Bunch says that better education programs that help students deal with situations where students are being offered cigarettes by their friends and how to respond to that would be a better solution than the bill, something he hadn’t been taught in the D.A.R.E. program he’d undergone growing up.
However, Maria still thinks that the bill would be effective. She says that she doesn’t have any particular health issues related to smoking now, but she knows that eventually it will have harmful effects.
Additionally, she says she knows from personal experience that it’s extremely difficult to stop smoking once you’ve started.
She tried quitting the past summer but couldn’t make it. Recently, she says that the longest period of time she’s gone without smoking had been six days, and it was a struggle.
“Deep down it’s like you’re going to go back, you’re just on a break,” she said. “If I could’ve not started that would be great because … I am addicted.”