ANNAPOLIS – Eleven-year-old Kimberly Breeding doesn’t think much of smokers.
“I like healthy people like myself,” said the seventh-grader from Caroline County. “I stay away from smoke because it’s hazardous to your health.”
Kimberly and more than 600 seventh-graders from across the state converged on Annapolis Thursday to lobby their legislators for tougher anti-smoking laws.
The second “Kid’s Day in Annapolis” was also a chance for the lawmakers to talk their younger constituents, said Veronique Diricker, Eastern Shore director for the American Lung Association, which with the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society sponsored the event.
Del. Cornell Dypski, D-Baltimore, took advantage of the opportunity to tell of his struggle to quit smoking 12 years ago. “I hope they learn the basic lesson not to start smoking,” he said.
Unfortunately, that message came too late for Sabrina Hall, 14, who started when she was 10 years old. “I guess I was trying to be cool, trying to fit in with the older kids,” said the Garrett Park resident.
Her father, James Hall, is particularly concerned because Sabrina’s mother died of colon cancer in November, and he has battled esophageal cancer and suffered three heart attacks due to smoking.
“[Sabrina] is going to give it up soon,” James Hall said. “She did promise my wife she would give it up by my wife’s birthday, which was Christmas.”
Cumberland residents Daniel Stevens and Ryan VanLeet, however, have vowed not to start the habit. The 12-year-olds could have passed for medical experts as they spoke earnestly about why smoking should be banned in restaurants, as well as why tougher laws are needed for teens.
“We want to prove to the legislators that minors are getting cigarettes,” said Daniel.
Cheryl Webber, 12, of St. Mary’s County had a similar message for her lawmakers.
“I want to tell them I have plenty of friends and some of them smoke,” she said. “They go to the bowling alley or a hotel and get cigarettes from a vending machine.”
Sen. Richard Colburn, R-Dorchester, was impressed with stories of convenience store clerks’ failure to enforce the law. The kids “really feel the clerks know the law, they just want to make the almighty dollar,” he said.
He noted the experiment described by two Charles County students, Bree Morriss and Jill Rice, in which they attempted to buy cigarettes from 10 local stores.
The two 13-year-olds said they came away with seven packs – five bought over the counter. A clerk at one store asked if they were over 16; another asked their age but sold the cigarettes after they told him they were 13.
It is illegal to sell tobacco to minors, but that law is rarely enforced, said Sen. Philip Jimeno, D-Anne Arundel.
With several anti-smoking measures being considered by lawmakers this year, Del. Salima Siler Marriott, D-Baltimore and a proponent of anti-smoking laws, was thrilled with the enthusiastic response to her pleas for support.
Marriott encouraged the audience to call their legislators and lobby for tougher restrictions. “[The students] are excited about being in power,” she said.
Their dedication was important to Martin Wasserman, secretary of Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, who warned of the dangers of smoking and secondhand smoke. A recent study showed the state has one of the nation’s highest cancer death rates, and 41 percent of the state’s cancer cases are caused by cigarettes, he said. “We must do what we can to get rid of cigarettes and keep our air clean,” Wasserman said. -30-