The facts about smoking
As Stephanie Burke, 19, pulls out a cigarette she shudders at the sight of the plain packaging.
"It makes me want to quit to be honest. Before, you barely noticed the mangled lung or bloody teeth, but now you can see it so clearly. It grosses me out," she says. "I don't think I'll be able to fool myself into thinking I'm not destroying my body anymore."
Stephanie is clearly distressed, and she's only looking at a printout of what the new cigarette boxes might look like. At the moment the Federal Government is still trying to get the proposed plain packaging through parliament. If successful, the legislation would be a world first and would come into effect at the start of 2012.
For Stephanie, this is the first time she's seriously thought about the dangers of smoking.
"I've been smoking since I was 15 and people are always telling me it's going to kill me and I've never listened. But now, I look at that sad brown box and the massive picture. I don't want that to happen to my insides."
Hard to swallow
In the most recent Australian School Students Alcohol and Drug Survey (new window), 32,000 Victorian students aged 12 to 17 admitted to smoking an average of 24 cigarettes each in the week before the survey.
In a year, that's more than 280 million cigarettes, smoked by people who aren't old enough to legally purchase tobacco.
Quit Victoria's youth coordinator Bianca Crosling says most young people approach the dangers of smoking with a mixture of false bravado and ignorance.
"Young people still think smoking is less dangerous than, say, getting into the car with a drunk driver," she says. "They don't have the ability to think too far into the future. They think they won't get addicted or won't get sick from smoking."
Sadly that's not the case. Research by Quit Victoria (new window) shows that smoking is the leading preventable cause of death and disease in Australia. One out of two long-term smokers will die from smoking-related illness.
Smoke and mirrors
It's not just these horrifying realities that motivate supporters of plain packaging. The majority of Australian smokers (new window) started before they turned 18, and that makes them 15 times more likely to die of lung cancer than someone who has never smoked.
"Young people's brains are still under development, so they don't realise the full implications of what they're doing. Before they know it, they're addicted," Ms Crosling says.
"That's why tobacco industries target young people with fancy packaging or collectable tins with fast cars on them. It's safe to say that if someone hasn't started smoking by the time they're 20, they won't ever smoke," she says.
"Plain packaging will rob the tobacco industries of their most important advertising tool, deter young people from smoking and save lives."
The new packaging definitely worked for Scott Moore, 19.
"I was already pretty disgusted by the graphic pictures they had on the boxes, but I had one look at the new packets without the fancy labels and that was it," he says.
"All you can see is the diseased body part and it's so clear. It was as if the packet lost its appeal. It definitely didn't look cool anymore and I couldn't bring myself to put a cigarette in my mouth after that."
Scott's not alone in his repulsion. Research by the Cancer Council Victoria found that young people thought their cigarettes tasted worse and were worse for them when they were presented in plain packaging.
Everybody Doesn't Do It
Carla Cartwright, 17, doesn't smoke, but says she's not sure if plain packaging will stop her friends.
"We all know that smoking is bad for our health, but everybody does it and they're fine, so it doesn't seem that dangerous," she says. "You see all the celebrities in movies doing it and they don't look like they're dying to me. They look good."
In her work, Ms Crosling says she often hears young people justify smoking because they think everyone smokes.
"It sort of desensitises them to the dangers. They feel more inclined to smoke because they're going through a period of transition in their lives and just want to fit in," she says.
"They see smoking as a way to be accepted by their peers and then when they see famous people smoking, that sensation is validated."
In reality, less than 10 per cent of young people aged 12 to 17 years (new window) smoke regularly.
"When young people hear that statistic, they're shocked. It doesn't seem as mainstream or acceptable anymore," Ms Crosling says. "New legislative measures like plain packaging and removing cigarettes from shelves will continue to send the message that smoking isn't a socially acceptable behaviour, and young people are already starting to listen."
Just say no
In the meantime, Quit Victoria has dedicated online resources to help young people resist peer pressure.
The What's Your Comeback? game (new window) arms young people with smart ways to refuse friends who offer cigarettes.
All the comebacks have been submitted by young people themselves and are lines they can use while still maintaining their reputation among their peers.
The game is part of OxyGen (new window), a website dedicated to giving young people all the facts about smoking without the lecture.
So check it out. Whether you smoke or know someone who does, it's the best place to get the lowdown on smoking and find out exactly what it's doing to your health.
Articles Written by Elisa
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