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SAIPAN, Northern Mariana Islands (April 29, 2001 - Saipan Tribune/PINA Nius Online)---Many middle school and high school students in the Northern Marianas now smoke, the Department of Public Health has disclosed.

An estimated 10 percent of middle school students (ages 12 to 14) and 30 percent of high school students are current smokers, according to the findings of a study commissioned by the department.

Nearly 55 percent of middle school and 85 percent of high school students admit to having tried cigarettes, it said.

The Department of Public Health underscored the need to enforce more stringent measures that would limit the access of the islands' youths to tobacco products.

The report said middle school Chamorro and Carolinian kids are more likely to have tried smoking than other ethnic groups in the Northern Marianas, including Marshall Islanders and youths from the Federated States of Micronesia.

Health department officials noted that the prevalence of youth smoking in the Northern Marianas can be attributed to their easy access to tobacco products, thus the need to strictly enforce existing laws.

The year 2000 survey provided health officials detailed information on usual sources of cigarettes for youths who smoke. These sources include store and vending machine purchases.

"Although the current CNMI law has been passed making it illegal to furnish tobacco products to minors, these types of restrictions are difficult and costly to enforce," the documents disclosed.

The health department further assessed that even when the law is strictly enforced, youngsters will still find other ways to obtain cigarettes.

House Committee on Health and Welfare Chair Malua T. Peter said the result of the survey will be seriously looked into by her committee to determine how to effectively enforce laws on smoking.

Ms. Peter said they are exploring how to extend help to effectively implement tobacco prevention programs, which should begin at home and Early Childhood Program centers.

The legislator said a tobacco prevention program should be implemented to the fullest in order to educate the public on the ills of smoking and second hand smoke. This is especially true now that the Master Settlement Agreement Trust Fund - funded by money from the settlement of lawsuits against tobacco companies - has already been established.

She also mentioned the need to raise awareness among store owners and vendors on the existing policies against cigarette selling to minors, even those who are armed with authorization signed by their parents.

Department of Public Health Tobacco Master Settlement Advisory Committee member Malinda Matson earlier said that the percentage of youths smoking should be sufficient to proceed with a planned two-year education forum funded under the Legacy Foundation Grant.

The Legacy Foundation Grant receives a certain percentage of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement that can be used for educational programs and campaigns against cigarette smoking.

Presently, Ms. Matson said the advisory board is mapping out a locally relevant education program to be participated in by students from various schools in the Northern Marianas.

Based on statistics released by California local government, concerted efforts against tobacco use resulted in a 40 percent decrease in lung cancer and certain heart related ailments.

Also, studies have shown that teens whose favorite stars smoked in two films were 1.5 times more likely to score on the upper end of the scale, while those whose favorite stars smoked in three or more films were three times as likely to do so.

The report, prepared by Dartmouth College researchers and published in the medical journal "Tobacco Control," studied over 600 students 10 to 19 years of age. The conclusion of the report suggests that stars who smoke on-screen encourage teens to try smoking.

The authors said, "We believe this evidence strongly suggests that media portrayals of tobacco use by popular movie stars contribute to adolescent smoking."

In 1999, another frightening report by the Office of National Drug Control Policy studied Substance Use in Popular Movies and Music.

It studied the 1996 and 1997 top 200 movie rentals and discovered that a whopping 98 percent of the actors were depicted as smoking, drinking or doing drugs in these movies. Alcohol and tobacco were in more than 90 percent of the movies.

For additional reports from The Saipan Tribune, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Saipan Tribune.

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