With so many temptations, “the goal is to delay the onset of problems for as long as possible. The younger a person is to try a cigarette, try gambling, fill in the blank, the more likely there’s going to be problems associated with that behavior,” says Matthew G. Smith, executive director of Preventionfocus. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)
Scott Scanlon – Refresh Editor
Preventionfocus Executive Director Matthew G. Smith likes to talk about the Surgeon General’s Report on cigarette smoking when he describes the struggle – and importance – of addiction prevention.
It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it.
It’s been 50 years since the report warned of the dangers of smoking tobacco.
“We have moved over those 50 years from a reality of 43 percent smoking in the year after the report came out to now about 18 percent of Americans smoking. Such an incredible shift in behavior didn’t happen by itself and didn’t happen overnight,” said Smith, subject of today’s In the Field feature in WNY Refresh.
“You’ve got to understand it’s a big boat to turn when you’re trying to change peoples’ attitudes,” Smith said, “but it can work, and it does work all the time.
“The Surgeon General reported the link between cigarette smoke and cancer,” he said. “Somebody had to have the idea that should be placed right on the cigarette pack. And somebody had to make that a law and somebody had to enforce that law for that label to be there. If you think about what life looked like back then, watch a black-and-white movie. Watch an old TV show. There was the apparent reality of everybody smoking, of smoking appearing to be normal. Fast forward to today and you see smokers huddled outside in a snow storm because they can’t smoke indoors, and you see cigarette prices gone through the roof because of the taxation as a result of regulation.
“You used to have vending machines where you could just put money in and pull a cigarette pack out. Now it’s not even on the shelf in front of the clerk at 7-Eleven. You gotta have them reach back to go get it for you so the little kids can’t shoplift and get hooked.
"All these changes happened because real people got together and said, ‘Hey, what about ...’ and worked with legislators to create laws – because laws are a great shaper of behavior and norms. Then, it has to be enforced.
"Then there’s people like us who go into a classroom and talk to kids about how to make a healthier, safer decision in a drug context. We certainly hope it leads to attitudes that are sticking with them throughout their lives.”
Smith and his wife, Lisa, who teaches in the Lake Shore school district, have four major reasons this sort of work is important: their children, Logan, 21, Austin, 19, Cameron, 17, and Allison, 12.
When Smith talks about work in the prevention field needing to be more than “Fun Police” talk, he puts his actions where his thinking is – he’s coached 67 youth baseball, softball and soccer teams in the Southtowns.
“The decision-making stuff is some of what I’m proudest of,” Smith said about his employment and volunteering life. “Kids are not miniature adults. They do not have the same brains that we have, and that’s a good thing. My brain in the body of a toddler – in addition to being creepy (with a laugh) – would also mean that the kid probably would never learn to walk, because he or she would know that they’re going to fall. ... Kids are wired to touch that stove. Kids, when they get to 12, 13 or 14, it’s different things they’re thinking: ‘I’m going to rebel, I’m going to experiment, I’m going to explore the world.’
"It’s that lack of fear, that lack of understanding of cause and effect, that allows us to grow and expand our boundaries. But it also sets us up for possible dangers that parents, of course, would rather keep their kids from.
“Kids can be like cars with no brakes. If you can teach them to have a brake, that helps a lot, because cause and effect – the skill of weighing pros and cons before someone makes a decision – if we can impart that to a younger person at an earlier age, we can save them from a whole bunch of bad things.”
With so many temptations, “the goal is to delay the onset of problems for as long as possible,” Smith said. “The younger a person is to try a cigarette, try gambling, fill in the blank, the more likely there’s going to be problems associated with that behavior.”
Which brings Smith to one of the big temptations of summer: teen gambling.
“The problem with this one: you aren’t going to smell gambling on their breath,” he said. “It can creep up on you. Online gaming is a big thing for young people. It’s probably impossible for parents to monitor everything their kids do, considering the multitude of electronic devices at their fingertips – and that they are very good at compared to us. So the learning curve is high, and it’s always changing. The anonymity of the solitary online gaming gets unreal after a fashion, and you don’t really know what’s happening until, all of a sudden, large sums of money are missing.”
Smith said a lot of the signs and symptoms of compulsive gambling mirror adolescence:
• Irritability, mood swings, sums of money missing, sums of money showing up, items of value showing up.
• Bragging or talking about gambling.
• “An overly excited response to a sports score that comes up that doesn’t involve the Bills or the Sabres.”
• New friends that you hadn’t seen before.
• A loss of interest in activities your teen always liked.
• A daily or weekly card game.
• Absences from school, anxiety, depression.
“They may be more irritable than normal because they’re chasing losses,” Smith said. “That’s one of the key indicators of whether there’s a problem or not: ‘It’s going to turn around for me,’ ‘I can’t stomach the fact that I lost all this money; I’ve got to get that money back.’ ‘I’ll throw more money at it, that’s how I’m going to get it back.’ It’s that chasing the losses that shows that compulsive behavior, problem gambling.”
Fewer than half of parents discuss gambling with their children, even though it’s all around them, Smith said.
“It’s mostly innocuous and that’s why most people don’t care about it,” Smith said. “No church, no Little League, no small philanthropic organization seems to be able to exist without it, because without the 50/50 split or the big boffo raffle at the end of the season or the Chinese auction, these organizations don’t know how to exist, so it’s there.
“The vast majority of us do that and it’s fine ... but if you have a family history where someone in the family was a compulsive gambler, that’s something to consider just like heart disease or the drug addict. That’s there. Family history’s a big deal.”
Smith recommends parents talk to their teens about gambling, and use the following talking points:
• Despite what they might see on “ESPN 60,” gambling is not a way to make money; there are far, far more losers than big winners.
• Gambling is a business set up so the “house” makes money. There’s a reason casinos look as flashy as they do, and can afford to employ hundreds of workers. Losing gamblers pay for that largess.
• Because the system favors the house, the probability is that the longer you spend gambling, the more money you will lose.
• There are consequences aside from losing money when it comes to gambling: loss of relationships, bad grades, mood changes including depression, and a greater likelihood you will participate in other risky behaviors.
The next time you as a parent see a gambling billboard or TV poker game, Smith said, use that as an opportunity to open a dialogue.
For more tips on how to guide that conversation, visit DontBetYet.com and download activity sheets or watch a problem gambling video with your children.
Other important websites to view include KnowTheOdds.org, problemgambling.ca and nyproblemgambling.org, ncpgambling.org and the gambling page at oasas.ny.gov.
“You’ve got to meet people where they are,” Smith said, “and you’ve got to talk to them not in absolutes but in ways that can help bring them along without turning them off and tuning you out.
“If you start to see a problem, the Hopeline, 1-877-8HOPENY, is a great number to call for a myriad of mental health or substance abuse issues that might manifest."
Parents of teens sometimes find themselves saying to themselves, “It’s about media, it’s about peers, it’s about friends now. I don’t matter,” Smith said. “The truth is you do. They are looking to you. The trick is from when they’re little, you’ve got to tell them how you feel about it, explain the risks and tell them you do not want them to go down that path and here are the reasons why. And you’ve got to say it over and over again.”