the ultimate act of rebellion—trade in your marijuana and hookah pipes for a crash course in wilderness survival skills

Julie Genser, Planet Thrive founder

Smoking Teens

WHEN MY FRIENDS AND I STARTED SMOKING in seventh grade at age 12, we thought we were trés cool. Some of us loved the thought of doing something our parents did but we were still considered “too young” for. Others might have thought it looked glamorous and sexy. And still others were drawn to the taboo, as an act of rebellion. Whatever the motivation, think again, kids. By buying into the glamour of cigarette smoking from advertising campaigns of years past, we are in fact, playing right into the hands of the companies that are at the heart of mainstream culture—Big Tobacco and Big Pharma. Both have the same goal of creating lifelong addictions to tobacco and to pharmaceuticals (drugs to help mask the symptoms you will get from smoking). Your unhealthy habits will keep lining their deep pockets—as they drain yours. This is how capitalism works.

There is nothing rebellious about smoking at all. Think you’re emulating glamorous adults? It’s more likely you are emulating ignorant adults—ignorant to the powers at play behind those little packs of cigarettes that have ended countless lives too early and in way too harsh a way while benefiting those whose interests most obviously do not include your health or quality of life.

When my grandmother smoked Raleigh cigarettes many moons ago, she would collect coupons in each pack for fun prizes like toasters and blenders. The harmful effects of smoking were not known. Advertisements glamorizing smoking were allowed on TV, in newspapers and magazines. Celebrities were often seen on the big screen with a long, slender cigarette draped longingly from their lips. Today’s youth—and adults—have none of these encouragements and have a full awareness that cigarettes are unhealthy, and yet continue to make the same choice to start smoking. It seems the glamour of smoking has not worn off, even more than 35 years after the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act banned the advertising of cigarettes on television and radio.1

One reason may be that teens have been a target market for Big Tobacco due to their susceptibility to peer pressure and media campaigns that offer the promise of social acceptance. In the ’90’s, Joe Camel images were described by class action plaintiffs and politicians as a “cartoon” intended to attract people below the legal smoking age. Camel ended the campaign in 1997 due to pressure from anti-smoking groups, The Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and the U.S. Congress.1 But the glamorous appeal of smoking continues to live on.

How is this for glamour: each cigarette contains over 4,000 chemicals—many of which are formed by the process of burning and not included in safety testing results. With each “drag” on your cigarette, you breathe into your lungs a toxic cocktail of formaldehyde, arsenic, hydrogen cyanide, radioactive Polonium-210, pesticide, and other ingredients—some of which are regularly used in nail polish remover, rat poison, prison executions, batteries, antifreeze, pet repellants, mothballs, and other toxic products you would never want to inhale deep into your still immature and developing bronchial tubes.2

With a regular smoking habit, over the next 10 to 20 years you might expect to experience increasing health problems that could include digestive troubles (food allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, etc.), asthma, eczema and other unsightly skin conditions, reactive airway disease, emphysema, and lung cancer.

If cigarettes are not your thing but you think it’s cool to smoke weed (marijuana/pot/dope), consider this: your dime bag might contain extremely toxic rat poison, plant growth hormones, and weed and bug sprays (some of them long-banned in the U.S.). Says Agent Patrick Foy of the California Department of Fish and Game: “I’ve seen the pesticide residue on the plants. You ain’t just smoking pot, bud. You’re smoking some heavy-duty pesticides from Mexico.”3

And if you believe that hookah tobacco smoke is safer than cigarette smoke, you are wrong. Sitting in a hookah bar for an hour is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes. Smoke from hookah pipes is just as harmful and contains all the same chemicals—even secondhand hookah smoke is as dangerous as secondhand cigarette smoke. Some chemicals, and especially heavy metals like cadmium, arsenic, nickel, and lead, are found in higher concentrations than in cigarette smoke. One study showed that hookah smoke produced over 100 times more tar than did cigarette smoke and three times as much carbon monoxide. The various flavorings and aromas added to the tobacco used in hookah pipes may add chemicals that increase the toxicity of the smoke, especially after being heated.4

According to Diana Bonta, Director of the California Department of Health Services, “the use of hookah pipes is not a safe alternative to cigarette smoking. Smoking hookah pipes has been reported to cause oral, esophageal and lung cancer as well as heart disease, chronic bronchitis and of course, nicotine addiction.”4

Instead of harming yourself with tobacco and drugs as an act of rebellion or attempt to claim a piece of Hollywood glamour for yourself (and setting yourself up for a lifetime of health issues), consider rebelling against society in true fashion: become proficient in outdoor living skills, and learn about permaculture practices, intentional communities, composting, herbalism, and sprouting and fermenting foods. You’ll be able to nourish yourself with whole foods at minimal cost and will be free to choose whatever career you want without being a slave to the “rat race” and constantly chasing after the Jones’.

One of the reasons teens “rebel” in the first place, is that our system leaves a lot to be desired. Youngsters are forced into a routine (school) that tells them when to be hungry, when to be attentive, and what is important to know. For many, their body tells them differently. Some of us, myself included, grow up with a sense that things are just not right. That there is an important part of us that is being suppressed by our culture.

It’s no wonder when our culture is dictated by profit and little else. Those with the most money get to define our values, using T.V., movies, and news media to create the landscape we live in. Big Pharma—drug companies—get to determine what is taught to our physicians in med school. Politicians are funded by groups with special interests, who demand support for their cause in exchange for financial support. Conflicts of interest abound everywhere in our culture: even the food pyramid we base our diets on historically has been heavily influenced by the meat and dairy industries.

Who are we to believe? It can take half a lifetime or more to figure all this out. At age 37, I found myself uncovering a deep well of anger because there were so many basic things I had not learned in school, or from my parents or peers. I had no idea how to grow my own food. I didn’t even know how to breathe properly. No wonder, since our government lets companies heavily pollute our air with unsafe manufacturing processes. I couldn’t even go to the bathroom properly, due to chronic digestive trouble. But that is what happens from 30+ years of covering our bodies with products that are not adequately safety tested, eating foods laced with pesticides, and being raised in a culture of violence.

The biggest act of rebellion teens can take is to learn critical survival skills so that you can live cheaply and well without depending on a system that doesn’t have your best interests at heart. Rather than sell your soul to a company that goes against your values when you graduate from high school or college, take some time to travel the world and learn about other cultures. Spend time in ecovillages, learning what it’s like to live in community.

True liberation—and good health—comes from knowledge and wisdom time-tested through generations. It takes real strength to stand up to mainstream culture and veer off the beaten track. Luckily, today’s youth are starting to forge inroads in sustainability and self-sufficiency that will make these lifestyle skills more accessible to those who come after.

To learn more, please see:
Survival and outdoor living skills.
Teaching Drum Outdoor School website: wilderness immersion programs, native lifeway, and community healing.
Intentional Communities website, providing resources for finding a community home and creating more community in your life.
Website of Lost Valley educational center, offering courses, conference rentals, and community for ecological and social sustainability.
Permaculture Institute near Santa Fe, Mexico.
Permaculture Activist magazine website with lots of resources.

Dom’s Kefir page
Everything you ever wanted to know about making kefir, a sour but refreshing cultured milk drink that provides probiotics for a healthy gut ecology.
Wise traditions in food, farming, and the healing arts.
The world’s largest nutrition school, offering in-person nutrition courses with the world’s leaders in health and wellness.
The Hippocrates philosophy is founded on the belief that a pure enzyme-rich diet, complemented by positive thinking and non-invasive therapies, are essential elements on the path to optimum health.
Herbal medicine and women’s health.
A place for people recovering from environmentally based illness.

1 Wikipedia, “Tobacco Advertising.”

2, “The Poisons,” FACTory.

3 Tracie Cone, “Mexican marijuana cartels sully US forests, parks,” Associated Press, October 11, 2008.

4 California’s Clean Air Project (CCAP), “Hookah Toolkit,” March 2007.

photo credits: Smoking Teens © Christian J. Stewart / iStockphoto

Julie GenserJulie Genser is the founder of and
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