EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one of three stories (one gives a Pekin perspective and can be found by clicking here, and the other gives a state perspective and can be found by clicking here) that are part of a regional project that looks at the effort statewide and locally to push the legal age to buy tobacco products from 18 to 21, while removing current penalties for tobacco possession for those 18 and under. Illinois is looking to become the sixth state to change the purchase age. In the meantime, 16 Illinois cities, including Chicago and Peoria, have already made the legal age 21. This project is the result of work by daily newspapers in the GateHouse Western Illinois Division.
Kohen Gibbons brought his own cigarettes to Kiwanis Skate Park and lit one after a short ride in Wednesday afternoon’s sun.
The 20-year-old laughed at the notion of Illinois raising the legal age to buy tobacco to 21.
“I’ve been smoking for eight years,” Gibbons said. “That’s the truth. I started when I was 12 years old, stealing shorts out of my mom’s ashtray.”
Gibbons said two factors drove his decision to start smoking.
“I thought it made me look older,” he explained. “It didn’t matter to me what the law was — I wanted to be able to hang out with older guys, I wanted to look older.
“Then, as I started, I was addicted. You’re gonna laugh at this, but cigarettes give you a feeling you can’t get anywhere else.”
Fellow skater Noah Selkirk agreed with Gibbons’ description of smoking’s lure.
“I understand why they want to raise the age — they want to stop teenagers from getting into it,” said Selkirk, who started smoking at the age of 15 after using dip tobacco for roughly a year.
“For the kids who really want to smoke, they will find a way to smoke,” Selkirk continued. “For the kids who really, really want to smoke, raising the age is pointless.”
All five of the teen and young adult smokers interviewed for this story agreed that young people who want to smoke will find a way. But they also agreed that they think smoking is much less common among their peers than among people their parents’ age.
“Honestly, I think fewer teens smoke today than when I was younger,” Selkirk added. “I don’t have any kind of stats to back that up, but I don’t think I see as many teenagers smoking as when I was a teenager.”
Social interaction was one of the biggest contributing factors mentioned by the five young smokers interviewed for this story.
“I started smoking at 15, and I had dipped for about a year,” said Tim Haneghan, a 24-year-old who spends time at Kiwanis Skate Park riding a custom-built scooter.
“My friends were smoking. I was with older guys doing it,” Haneghan continued. “Smoking cigarettes was part of hanging out. It was always part of a social thing.”
For Brian “Tubs” Hughes, smoking offered social interaction and a chance to impress his friends — but his smoking is slightly different from the traditional cigarettes. The 18-year-old who just graduated from high school “vapes.”
Vaping is the slang for the act of inhaling water vapor — which delivers nicotine — through a personal vaporizer or electronic cigarette. When users draw on the device, the battery heats the liquid, which is then atomized into a vapor that can be inhaled.
“I don’t smoke cigarettes — I don’t think many teenagers smoke cigarettes anymore. Vaping is kind of the cool thing,” Hughes said. “I started when I was 17. It was because my friends vaped, but it was also because a guy I knew did smoke tricks.”
Hughes picked up on the tricks and now astounds friends with his ability to blow elaborate smoke rings.
Vaporizers and e-cigarettes are considered tobacco products and are governed by the same laws. Any age change to tobacco use and purchase would also apply to new methods of nicotine delivery.
A number of students at nearby Carl Sandburg College confirmed Hughes’ notion of teenagers moving away from traditional cigarettes.
“Of the people I know who smoke, I don’t think I know anyone who smokes actual cigarettes,” said a 19-year-old freshman who didn’t want her parents to know she smokes. “I started back in high school, probably when I was 16. I started because I was going to parties and it’s what was done.
“People would pass around an e-cigarette. Juuls are the thing all of my friends use.”
E-cigarettes are battery operated inhalers consisting of a rechargeable battery, a cartridge called a cartomizer and an LED that lights up at the end when the smoker puffs on the device.
Students at Carl Sandburg College don’t have social smoking on campus — which mirrors the state’s ban on smoking in public places.
“When we want to go smoke, some of us get in a car and we drive around Lake Storey,” explained a second-year Carl Sandburg College student. “There aren’t many public places where people can hang out and smoke. You better not try it on campus. Someone will always warn you and tell you to quit.”
Most Carl Sandburg College students who do smoke say the vast majority of their friends don’t smoke.
“I don’t have a lot of friends who smoke or vape or who do Juuls,” the 19-year-old Carl Sandburg College freshman said. “Very few of my friends actually do it.”
Anecdotal evidence backed up that assertion. Of the 65 Carl Sandburg College students approached over the course of two afternoons, just four said they used tobacco our tobacco products. And 52 of those students said they didn’t have any friends or knew of fellow students who smoked.
Kyle Watters, who has sold tobacco and tobacco products at Galesburg’s One Stop Smoker’s Shop for over a decade, said he isn’t surprised to hear it’s hard to find young smokers.
He said he thinks laws banning public smoking and widespread anti-smoking campaigns have cut the number of teenagers trying tobacco and tobacco products. He said he isn’t surprised the state may raise the age to buy tobacco.
“The anti-smoking message is everywhere,” Watters said. “Watch an hour of television. The anti-smoking commercials are on all the time.
“And smoking really isn’t a social thing anymore — not in public. There is nowhere to sit and smoke with friends. And then you have the cost. The cheapest carton of cigarettes right now is $60.03.
“It’s cheaper to get a big bag of tobacco, a rolling machine and papers. And not many teenagers are interested in rolling their own cigarettes. Honestly? We just don’t have a lot of young people who shop here.”