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Keeping Kids From Lighting Up

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When an antismoking advertisement appears on TV, Lori Rupolo talks to her eight-year-old son, Michael, about it.

"You're not going to do that," she will say, "Do you know why?"

He's got all the answers down pat. Still, she worries. "He can tell me he's never going to [smoke], but when he turns 15 or 16, there are going to be other kids who do."

Mrs. Rupolo's concern is not uncommon. Parents often assume that peer pressure is an influence they can't fight. But a growing number of researchers say that parents, relatives, and mentors can play a significant role in a child's decision to smoke - or not.

"Kids tell us very clearly that the place they get scripting from is parents," says Pamela Clark, a longtime researcher on teen smoking. That script "needs to be strong and unambiguous. 'You will not use tobacco. Period.' "

When children don't have a strong script to draw from they will pull from elsewhere. Friends. Other relatives. Media messages, including those at tobacco-sponsored sporting events and parties (see story below). And Hollywood (remember Leonardo DiCaprio's character in "Titanic"?).

"My parents know, but they don't say anything," says Benoit, a French youth visiting Boston who smokes "at parties and on vacation."

In many countries, including the United States, Brazil, Singapore, and India, there are government efforts to provide an antismoking script. "Parents need to communicate a very strong message, but community and society need to back up parents in a big way," says Jean Forster, professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota.

Antismoking scripts

President Clinton and some members of Congress are still working on a tobacco industry deal that would raise the tax on cigarettes, end marketing to children, and fund smoking-cessation programs. Many states are spending millions of dollars on antismoking programs in schools, on television, in concerts, and are mounting sting operations against shopkeepers who sell cigarettes to children.

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