Every single day in the United States, close to 3,000 young people under the age of 18 start smoking cigarettes. It’s hard to imagine… with anti-smoking laws increasing and social acceptance on the decline, one would think our kids would be getting the idea that smoking is a dumb idea. Many of them are getting the idea, but clearly not enough.
It’s up to us as parents to help our children understand from an early age that smoking is dangerous and deadly. As parents, we have more influence on our children than anyone else, so start the dialogue with your child early, and mention your feelings about smoking often. Let them know how serious the addiction to nicotine is and educate them about the risks associated with smoking. Condition them to have a healthy hatred for smoking. The more you can do early on in your child’s development to turn them away from smoking, the better their chances will be of avoiding it altogether.
Why is tobacco dangerous?
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States, and can cause cancer, heart disease, and lung disease. Chewing tobacco (smokeless or spit tobacco) can lead to nicotine addiction, oral cancer, gum disease, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks. Short-term effects of smoking include coughing and throat irritation. Over time, this may lead to more serious conditions such as increases in heart rate and blood pressure, bronchitis, and emphysema.
One of the major problems with smoking and chewing tobacco has to do with the chemical nicotine. Someone can get addicted to nicotine within days of first using it. In fact, the nicotine in tobacco can be as addictive as cocaine or heroin. Nicotine affects mood as well as the heart, lungs, stomach, and nervous system.
Additionally, kids who use tobacco are more likely to:
- Develop respiratory problems such as asthma and coughing.
- Have trouble with athletic performance. Lung capacity is affected, along with endurance.
- Have yellowed teeth. Tobacco stains teeth and causes bad breath.
- Stink! Cigarette smoke clings to clothing, and the smell of stale smoke is strong and unpleasant.
- Use other drugs such as alcohol, marijuana and cocaine.
- Become addicted to tobacco and find it very difficult to quit.
How can I help prevent my kid from smoking?
Kids might be drawn to smoking and chewing tobacco for any number of reasons—to look cool, act older, lose weight, win cool merchandise, seem tough, or feel independent. But parents can combat those draws and keep kids from trying—and getting addicted to—tobacco.
Establish a good foundation of communication with your kids early on to make it easier to work through tricky issues like tobacco use. Some guidelines to keep in mind:
- Speak directly about the dangers associated with smoking. If you have friends or relatives who have died of a smoking-related illness, share the truth about it with your child.
- Help your kids develop a healthy self-image. If they feel confident and sure of themselves, they’ll be better able to resist social pressure to smoke.
- Discuss ways that they can say no to smoking. Help them prepare for situations by running through potential scenarios they might experience with friends. Do a little role playing. Ask questions like “What would you do if your best friend asked you to smoke?” Help them come up with ways to say no without losing friends.
- Let your child know that smoking in movies and on TV is NOT cool. Seeing their favorite stars smoking can be very influential to a young person, so be aware of what your child is watching and be ready to counteract it.
- Encourage kids to get involved in activities that prohibit smoking, such as sports.
- Ask what kids find appealing or unappealing about smoking. Be a patient listener.
- Establish firm rules that exclude smoking and chewing tobacco from your house and explain why: Smokers smell bad, look bad, and feel bad, and it’s bad for everyone’s health.
What do I do if I suspect my kid is smoking?
Sometimes even the best foundation isn’t enough to stop kids from experimenting with tobacco. It may be tempting to get angry, but it’s more productive to focus on communicating with your child. Here are some tips that may help:
- Resist lecturing or turning your advice into a sermon.
- Uncover what appeals to your child about smoking and talk about it honestly.
- Many times, kids aren’t able to appreciate how their current behaviors can affect their future health. So talk about the immediate downsides to smoking: less money to spend on other pursuits, shortness of breath, bad breath, yellow teeth, and smelly clothes.
- Stick to the smoking rules you’ve set up. And don’t let a child smoke at home to keep the peace.
If you hear, “I can quit any time I want,” ask your child to show you by quitting cold turkey for a week.
- Try not to nag. Ultimately, quitting is your child’s decision.
- Help your child develop a quitting plan and offer information and resources, and reinforce the decision to quit with praise.
- Stress the natural rewards that come with quitting: freedom from addiction, improved fitness, better athletic performance, and improved appearance.
- Encourage a meeting with your doctor, who can be supportive and may have treatment plans.
- Show your kid this article written for kids on the dangers of smoking and how to quit.
What if I am a smoker?
Kids are quick to observe any contradiction between what their parents say and what they do. Despite what you might think, most kids say that the adult whom they most want to be like when they grow up is a parent.
If you’re a smoker:
- First, admit to that you made a mistake by starting to smoke and that if you had it to do over again, you’d never start.
- Second, quit. It’s not simple and it may take a few attempts and the extra help of a program or support group. But your kids will be encouraged as they see you overcome your addiction to tobacco. Check out this brochure about QUITWORKS, Massachusetts’ proven program to help people quit smoking.
For a list of local resources including adolescent medical services, mental health counseling, substance abuse, violence, grief, suicide, and after-school programs for teens, click here.