Seventeen Payson High School students graduated from nicotine-addled existences to lives free from tobacco Monday afternoon.
Abigail Pederson and her father-in-law, Dean, prevention specialists for Rim Guidance Center, host an eight-week intervention workshop for teenagers -- sponsored by the Tobacco Awareness Program and Gila County -- twice a year.
"We have more chewers than smokers this year," Abigail said. "Some of them got caught, but most of them are self-referrals."
Dean, who has spearheaded the program for 10 years, said the high school's smoking cessation efforts continue to flourish -- three-quarters of the participants voluntarily joined the program.
"There's always about a 25 percent to 50 percent quit rate for two weeks," he said. "But this group is almost 80 to 90 percent."
Tobacco companies, reported the Centers for Disease Control, welcome 4,000 young newcomers to nicotine addiction a day. An additional 1,500 experimenters become daily users, while 54 percent of young smokers try to kick the habit, to no avail.
Despite data from the American Cancer Society suggesting that young smokers are on the decline, the CDC reported one out of every four teens between 12 and 17 uses smokeless tobacco or puffs cigarettes.
"A lot of these kids come from families who are smokers," Abigail said. "A lot of our kids stay quit, but a lot of them are repeats. It depends on their support, and where their friends are at (as far as smoking)."
Peer pressure and the media, added Abigail, are the strongest influences in a teen's decision to use tobacco.
A ninth-grader in the group admitted he's been chewing since seventh grade -- his parents don't know about it.
"There's a lot of peer pressure," he said. "I started chewing because my friends did."
The teenager said he struggled at first to quit, but once he accepted and focused on his problem, letting go became easier.
"It worked out good," said the boy. "I plan on staying quit."
The CDC addressed smokeless tobacco in a November 2005 report. Young white males pinch snuff more than any other ethnic group in the United States. Seven percent of high school students and 3 percent of middle school students chew.
"Chewing is just a part of cowboy life," Abigail said. "They go to rodeos and everyone is chewing."
In spite of the growing popularity of chewing tobacco, cigarettes, Abigail pointed out, are becoming gauche among Payson High School students.
A female junior -- who picked up cigarettes three years ago, and kicked them a month and a half ago -- said she stopped smoking for health reasons and to set a good example for her younger sister.
"I was coughing and getting sore throats," she said. "(Smoking) is not attractive and it's expensive."
The teen said a friend introduced her to cigarettes -- she wanted to try smoking, but soon the glamour turned into a grind.
"I realized I was addicted when I was angry, and I wanted a cigarette," she said. "It's very easy to start smoking. Quitting is harder. Be prepared."
The Tobacco Awareness Program is confidential. Students or parents concerned about tobacco use can contact Abigail at (928) 595-2943 or Pederson at (928) 595-2149.