TOOELE — It all started a few months after Kristen Bleazard went to work as a clerk at the 7-Eleven store in her neighborhood.

So many customers dropped in at all hours to buy cigarettes that Kristen, then 16, started to wonder, "What's the big deal? What does smoking feel like?" One day after work, to get around Utah's 19-and-older cigarette sales law, she asked one of her co-workers to buy her a pack of Camels.

I'll try just one, she thought, lighting up. Inhaling, she coughed and felt dizzy, but for whatever stupid reason, she was determined to get it right. Within a couple of weeks, her "just one" promise had evaporated with the smoke rings she was expertly puffing on her lunch break.

Five years later, Kristen looks back at her decision to buy that first pack of cigarettes and sighs. "It was a dumb move — curiosity got to me," she says. "Like a lot of people I thought, 'No problem — I can quit any time.' I know now that's not how it works. I got addicted, and quick. I'm really disappointed in myself."

It's never too late to make a fresh start, so now at age 21, Kristen has resolved to quit. She hasn't had a cigarette since one minute before midnight on New Year's Eve, when she and her boyfriend agreed that their unhealthy habit couldn't continue in 2008.

"Going without cigarettes is stressful because the cravings make you jittery and ornery," says Kristen, who has tried to quit before, "but I have to do it this time. I don't want to be one of those people who end up carrying oxygen with them wherever they go."

Kristen has good reason to worry. She now works as a certified nurse's assistant at Mountain West Medical Center, where she sees the long-term effects of smoking every day. Many of the patients she helps have emphysema, lung cancer, heart disease and other ailments brought on by a lifetime of lighting up.

Hoping to convince other young people to say no to that first cigarette, Kristen recently joined me for a Free Lunch chat during a break from changing hospital sheets and giving sponge baths.

"You don't think it can harm you when you're young, but it does," she says. "And the money you spend, it's such a waste. If I had all the money I'd wasted on cigarettes, I'd have a down payment for the new car I've been wanting to get."

As a teenager, Kristen hid her habit from her parents for more than a year, sneaking outside for a smoke after her mom went to bed and her dad left for his night shift.

When her parents found out, they gave her a stern lecture and threw away her lighters and cigarettes. Her younger sister, Chantel, signed up with the Phoenix Alliance — an anti-smoking program for teenagers — and gave Kristen daily warnings on the dangers of smoking.

For a time, Kristen quit, but the pull to return to her ritual was great, especially when she started college. "Somebody offered me one, I took it, and just like that, I was up to half a pack a day," she says.

To quit for good this time, she signed up for a hospital employees' program giving her free nicotine gum and a support group. But her main motivation is to set an example for younger hospital patients.

"I want to make nursing my career," says Kristen, "but I can't do that and be a smoker. It isn't exactly a healthy image when you see a nurse outside, having a cigarette break."


Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what you'd like to talk about to [email protected]. You can also write me at the Deseret Morning News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.