It’s 8.15am outside the Santa Bárbara high school in central Madrid and bitingly cold. A teenage boy and girl sit chatting and smoking as they wait for classes to begin. “We smoke a cigarette every morning when we get here, it helps with the stress of the first couple of hours,” says the girl, who prefers to use the fictitious name of Ana Pérez. She is aged 15, and says she tried her first cigarette when she was 13. Spanish Health Ministry figures from 2013 show that 12.5 percent of 14- to 18-year-olds smoke on a daily basis, a fall of just 0.02 percent since 2011, despite continued awareness campaigns about the dangers.
Smoking rates among young people in our country, and particularly among females, are very worrying” Cancer specialist Dr Rosario García Campelo
November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month and smoking is a first step toward contracting the disease. The Spanish Association for Lung Cancer Victims (AECaP) says that smoking is the number one cause of the illness, which affects 21,000 people each year in Spain. And that first step tends to be taken early: figures from 2010 collected by the National Statistics Institute (INE) show that young people generally start smoking between the ages of 13 and 14.
“You see all your friends smoking and so I decided to try it, and that’s how I started,” says the teenager huddled against the cold outside school. “It was pretty stupid really, just something that was fashionable,” adds her friend, who also prefers to remain anonymous, giving the name José Ramírez. He is aged 17, and started smoking when he was 13.
Both say their friends also smoke: more than 90 percent of school students say they know that smoking can damage their health, according to the Health Ministry. Aside from helping deal with stress, among the other reasons smoking continues to attract young people, says health psychologist José Elías, is that it “makes them feel older” and that they are “breaking the rules.”
“Smoking rates among young people in our country, and particularly among females, are very worrying,” says Dr Rosario García Campelo, a cancer specialist and member of SEOM, the Spanish Society for Medical Oncology. AECaP warns that the number of deaths in Europe from lung cancer this year will outnumber those from breast tumors for the first time.
The young man calling himself José Ramírez explains that his mother smoked for many years, and only gave up when she was told she would soon have to use a respirator. “I used to smoke a packet a day. I started to cut down because I realized I was smoking too much, and now I buy a packet every three days,” he says, adding that the rising cost of tobacco has helped decrease his consumption.
There’s no hard evidence that younger lungs are more susceptible to cancer, but risk of the disease is certainly increased by the amount of time someone smokes over their lifetime. “The younger you start to smoke, the greater the likelihood” of contracting the disease, says Dr Bartomeu Massuti, head of the oncology department at Alicante’s main hospital.
Luis Fernández – another fictitious name – also knows something about the risks of smoking. At the age of 16 he is already an ex-smoker. He admits to having smoked around three cigarettes a day. “Especially at parties and during recess, although I had it pretty much under control,” he says. “I liked it, but this year I have felt bad physically, so I’ve stopped. I no longer cough, and have no pains, I’m much better.” He says his girlfriend introduced him to smoking.
Figures show that more than 43 percent of school students have smoked at least once in their lives
Figures show that more than 43 percent of school students have smoked at least once in their lives, and this despite a ban on smoking in public places since 2006 and extensive media campaigns focused on discouraging young people from taking up the habit.
Ana Pérez and José Ramírez say they smoke around six cigarettes each a day. They both put out their first of the morning. It’s now 8.30am and their classes are about to begin and they make their way into school. Aside from the “obligatory” puff as soon as they leave their homes in the morning, they will light up at morning recess, have another at lunch time, and a final one before heading home for the day.