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Young smokers run with the risk of cancer

Clare Garner finds youngsters ignoring the dangers
Of course they could stop smoking if they wanted to, but why should they?

For many pupils at Crofton School, in Lewisham, south-east London, the harmful effects of the habit do not strike a chord.

Boredom, peer pressure and a belief that smoking is "no more dangerous than anything else nowadays" mean that, for some, only the death of a close relative would do the trick.

Six-a-day Louise Auguste, 15, smokes because her friends smoke. She thought about giving up once, but to no avail.

"My auntie was in hospital from a collapsed lung. Mum said I should stop smoking because I might turn out like that. I was scared and told her I was going to give up, but I didn't. It wasn't like dying so I didn't think it was that bad. If someone died in my family I would give up."

But for Michelle Walsh, 15, who switched to Benson and Hedges when she arrived at the mixed comprehensive because everyone else smoked that brand, even a family death didn't make her give up.

"My dad's auntie died of lung cancer. I was going to give up then but I changed my mind. When I came back to school and saw everyone smoking I thought: `Oh well, never mind, try again another time.'

And if cigarettes went up to pounds 5 a pack? "I'd be poncing off everyone else. I certainly wouldn't be buying them myself," said Michelle, who smokes to stay slim. "You can smoke instead of eat," she enthused.

A smoker since the age of 11, Deborah Holtham, 17, has smoked more in the last year than ever before. "Since it's been legal I've smoked more and my mum knows now so it's easier," she said.

Deborah knows the risks, but reasons: "You could get run over crossing the road."

There are things that are far worse for you, she says, like drugs. "Drugs kill straight away. With smoking it's a gradual thing so you can find out and stop. There's nothing that would make me give up - unless I found out I'd got lung cancer. If they cost pounds 5 a packet I'd just have to make them last."

To Sam Knight, 14, smoking one cigarette is "like taking a few mouthfuls of the pollution in London on a hot day".

Nathan Wilson, 12, is having none of it. As one of the school's official "peer educators", he preaches the dangers of smoking to his friends, all of whom smoke. And Melissa Sheppard, 12, also a peer educator, is adamant: "If I'm offered a cigarette by friends I say, `No. I'm just a better person. I'm not that stupid'."