Smoking and Your Child

by: Alvin Poussaint, M.D. and Susan Linn, Ed.D.
How to keep kids from smoking and deal with a teen who does.

Your eighth grader, who made anti-smoking posters in fifth grade, comes home smelling like stale smoke. You know her friends are smoking and you think she might try it, if she hasn't already. In addition to peer pressure, she's exposed to ads urging her to light up. Teen idols like Leonardo Di Caprio are puffing their way through movies. Every time you bring it up, she rolls her eyes and slams the door.

Given the known links between cigarettes and fatal and debilitating diseases like emphysema and cancer of the throat, mouth, lips, esophagus and lungs, the statistics on teenage smoking are frightening. Nine percent of eighth graders smoke cigarettes daily. Thirty-six percent of teens in high school are daily smokers. It's heartbreaking. Addiction to cigarettes is known to be one of the most difficult habits to break.

Combating nicotine addiction in teenagers can seem like a formidable battle because of their inclination to experiment and to challenge authority. What's a parent to do?

  • Talk with kids about manipulation by media advertising. If kids understand that they are being used and exploited by cigarette companies, they are less likely to succumb to seductive advertising that depicts smoking as glamorous and rewarding. In fact, smoking causes foul smelling breath, and stains teeth and fingers. A cigarette smoker's clothing smells like stale cigarette smoke. All of these might repel potential friends -- even potential boyfriends or girlfriends.

  • Try to discourage kids from acquiring backpacks and other stuff that is associated with cigarette companies. A recent study shows that kids who want or own T shirts or accessories sporting cigarette advertising are three times more likely to start smoking. Encouraging young people to use these accessories is another way teens can be exploited by cigarette companies.

  • Help children learn to resist peer pressure early on.

  • Give your child reading materials on smoking and health from the American Cancer society or your local health department. These publications often have graphic pictures of how smoke damages the lungs and other organs.

  • Because teenagers tend to live in the moment, it's hard for them to relate to a problem that could happen in the future, so the connection between smoking and cancer or illness is hard for them to make. However, the negative effects of smoking will seem more real, and more horrifying, if you can talk honestly with them about the people in their lives, such as adult friends or relatives, who have gotten sick because of smoking.

  • Encourage your child's school to have anti-smoking education programs for all students, starting in the early grades.

  • If your teenagers are involved with sports, make sure they know about the ill effects smoking has on lung capacity. Encourage your child's coach to talk with the team about smoking.

  • If you or your spouse smoke, then try to quit. If you can't quit, or don't want to, talk honestly to kids about your addiction. Why did you start to smoke? How did it make you feel? How do you feel about it now? Enroll in a program at your local hospital or health plan designed to help people stop smoking.