By John DiConsiglio

If you're looking for the Robinson Rams baseball team during fourth-period lunch, don't bother searching the cafeteria or the practice diamond. On most afternoons, you'll find a handful of the top players from Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax, Virginia, huddled in a friend's nearby basement. They eat pizza. They play Tony Hawk video games. And always—always—they smoke cigarettes.

"Kids hanging out. Whether it's a party or lunch, there are going to be smokes," says Kevin McNamara, an 18-year-old Robinson senior and a regular attendee at the basement brunch. Kevin is a star member of the school's golf team. He was also the Rams' ace pitcher until he tore a ligament in his knee.

And, until recently, he smoked two packs a day.

"Kevin's story is not unusual," says Dr. Bill Corrigall, director of NIDA's Nicotine and Tobacco Addiction Program. "Many teens and even pre-teens begin to experiment with smoking, but soon find they are smoking regularly—they're addicted."

"I Want to Quit"
"I used to be able to run a mile under six minutes. Now I'm lucky to make it in eight. And I'm wheezing all the way," says Kevin, who's cut his daily use down to 10 cigarettes. "I want to quit. But it's not that easy."

More than ever, teens find that the best way to stop smoking is to never start at all. Teen smoking rates have steadily fallen since 1996, according to a NIDA-funded study. That's the good news. The bad news, experts say, is that teen smoking numbers are still too high. Each day, more than 3,000 children and adolescents become cigarette smokers, notes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's more than 1 million teens a year. Roughly one third of them will die from a smoking-related illness.

"There's hard evidence that smoking leads to addiction, health problems, and death," says Dr. Eric Moolchan, director of NIDA's Teen Tobacco Addiction Treatment Research Clinic. "Teens have a choice: They can become victims, or they can stop before they go too far. Better yet, they never have to start at all."

"I Must Have Been Crazy"
Even those who are well aware that smoking kills find cigarettes hard to resist. Sarah Millermon, an 18-year-old from Stockton, California, knows the dangers of cancer firsthand.

When she was a baby, she developed leukemia, a blood-related cancer. She underwent chemotherapy until she was 2. And, while she's been cancer-free ever since, the prospect of a relapse is never far from her mind.

Still, as a teen, Sarah went on to smoke a pack a day, putting herself at risk for cancer of the lungs, mouth, esophagus, larynx, stomach, pancreas, kidney, and bladder.

"When you're addicted to cigarettes, you can rationalize anything," says Sarah, who hasn't smoked in three months. "I'd tell myself: 'Well, I beat cancer once. I can do it again.' Now I look back and think I must have been crazy."

"A Horrible Thing to See"
Unlike Sarah, some teens see the ravaging effects of cancer and vow never to pick up a cigarette. Ashley S., a 14-year-old from Ocean City, New Jersey, watched her grandfather succumb to lung cancer.

"It's a horrible thing to see," she says. "The cancer just took over his body." He began smoking as a teenager in the Navy. Ashley understands how a teen in the 1940s might have been tricked into taking up cigarettes. But she can't see how today's teens fall for it.

"With all the information that's out there, with all the people who have died from smoking, it just puzzles me that kids keep doing it," she says. "You know that if you put that cigarette in your mouth, it might kill you. But you do it anyway. That just doesn't make sense."

For more information, check out NIDA's nicotine pages at: http://www.drugabuse.gov/drugpages/nicotine.html