NEW YORK - The idea came to Debra when she noticed she was gaining a few pounds.
``I thought I could do some crack and get all thin, lose my stomach but keep my butt,'' she says. ``I thought I could stop.''
But six months later, Debra was addicted. Crack had become the driving force in her life. ``I was turning tricks for drugs, going through the motions, doing what I had to do with my supplier,'' she says.
Doctors and users say there is a new reason behind the use of crack and cocaine among girls and young women: the misguided, but growing perception that it is a quick, cheap and easy way to lose weight.
Drug use also increasingly is being linked to eating disorders such as bulimia, where people often of normal weight binge and force themselves to vomit before the food is digested, and anorexia nervosa, in which underweight, often emaciated people refuse to eat.
Drug dealers, recognizing a new market, have begun dangling the panacea for ideal weight as a sales pitch. One 10-year-old girl says she was walking down 134th Street in New York recently when a pusher tried to sell her some crack.
``He said that boys only like thin girls like (Cosby show actress) Lisa Bonet,'' she says, looking down at her small feet. ``I want to be like Lisa Bonet.''
Vicki Greenleaf, author of ``Women and Cocaine,'' observes: ``Cocaine has no boundaries.''
Although crack, a mixture of cocaine and other substances, is
more common among poor drug users, and the purer form of cocaine is primarily used by wealthier users, the new form of dieting cuts across all class and ethnic lines.
Cocaine counselors usually blame curiosity, peer pressure and a desire to escape responsibility as the main reasons for drug abuse.
But Kristen Gayle, 11, of the Harlem area of New York says, ``My friends don't do crack to get out of responsibility. They do it to get all skinny.''
Dr. Michael Newman, director of the eating disorder unit at Fair Oaks Hospital in Summit, N.J., estimates that 40 percent of the patients he treats have a history of cocaine abuse. One-fourth of the patients entering his unit have severe addictions, Newman said.
In the past year, Fair Oaks has joined a number of hospitals nationwide that have modified their programs to treat both eating disorders and drug addiction at the same time.
Dr. Sheila Blume, director of South Oaks Hospital in Long Island, N.Y., who has specialized in female addiction for 28 years, says there is a strong connection between cocaine use and weight loss in women.
Most cocaine users are ages 18 to 34, the same age group which is most prone to eating disorders. Of these users, one-third to one-half are women, according to Blume.
Men seldom think about drugs as an avenue to weight loss, she says, ``but women do. Women are concerned about their looks and weight and keeping up with the latest fashion.''
With women who hold those values, cocaine may seem ``the perfect ladylike drug,'' author Greenleaf notes. ``There are no unsightly needle marks, no smells. You don't have to hang around bars. It's slimming, it's sensual and you don't slur your words.''