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"My Kid's Smoking? You've Got to Be Kidding!"

Teen smoking is on the rise. Learn the common factors that can lead a teenager to start smoking, and find out how to avoid them.

"My Kid's Smoking? You've Got to Be Kidding!"

Info Flash

Ninety-one percent of six-year-olds know who Joe Camel is and what he sells, according to studies conducted by the FDA.

Who isn't aware of the numerous health problems caused by smoking? And what addicted adult wouldn't do it over if he were given the chance never to have started?

That's why it's so surprising that teen smoking is on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of smoking teens has risen from 27.5 percent in 1991 to 34.8 percent in 1995 (the most recent year for which statistics are available).

Researchers have learned that there are several important factors that contribute to the likelihood of a teen starting to smoke:

Info Flash

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S. Eighty-two percent of daily smokers began smoking before they were 18, and more than 3,000 young persons begin smoking each day. Of every 3,000 children who begin smoking each day, 1,000 will die a tobacco-related death. Forty percent of teenagers who smoke daily have tried to quit and failed; 70 percent of adolescent smokers say they would not start if they could choose again.

  • The strongest influence is what their peer group is doing. If they hang out with smokers, they're very likely to take it up themselves. (Girls whose friends are smokers are six times more likely to take up smoking; boys are eight times more likely to smoke if their friends do.)
  • Another strong influence is how they perceive smoking. The impression that smoking will help them relax or combat stress may outweigh any risks they hear about. Risks like developing cancer are so far in the future that they take on an unreal quality to most teens.
  • Living with smokers will make a teen more likely to smoke.
  • Finally, teens who think they could quit any time are almost twice as likely to smoke as teens who think they could not quit.

Reversing the Trend

Although virtually every state prohibits sales of cigarettes to teens under a certain age (usually 18), these laws are often only weakly enforced. Studies of communities that have launched enforcement campaigns, however, have found significant declines in teenage smoking.

Governmental support for curbing sales of cigarettes to minors has launched a movement for such measures as limiting advertising for tobacco products and banning vending machine and mail-order sales (where there can be no regulation of the age of the purchaser). The ultimate threat is that the FDA might find grounds to dictate acceptable levels of nicotine in cigarettes—or ban them altogether.

Info Flash

Young people who use tobacco are more likely than others to drink heavily later or use illicit drugs.

These are good ideas, but what can you say to your teen? The best ammunition are the factors that affect her today:

  • Smoking makes you smell bad, and gives you bad breath: kissing a smoker is like kissing an ashtray.
  • Smoking makes your fingers turn yellow, and gives you premature wrinkles.
  • Smoking makes you short of breath (even those who have smoked for a short while will notice this). Your athletic skills will be impaired if you smoke.

Punishing your teen for smoking makes little sense because you have no way to monitor her moment-to-moment actions, and if you try the “sniff” test, she could be punished for not smoking but for being with people who do (her clothes will pick up the smoky smell if she's in a car or a room with smokers). Instead, use the tactics listed above to encourage her to quit, and lay out ground rules that seem appropriate to you. (You might stipulate no smoking in your house or car, for example.)

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