Once upon a time, James Dean in a leather jacket with a half-smoked cigarette was the epitome of cool. Then Judd Nelson came along in a leather jacket with a sneer and a cigarette in “The Breakfast Club.” For many years, it was stars like these that teens strived to emulate, thinking that smoking would make them look cool too.
Fortunately, the popularity of smoking among adolescents began to decline starting in the late 1990s, with the rate dropping sharply between 1997 and 2004. And in the years since, the rate of teens who regularly smoke conventional cigarettes has continued to decline.
But the decline has slowed. And many experts are concerned because nearly 4,000 teens still try cigarettes every day, and about 1,000 become daily smokers. (Boys are slightly more likely to be smokers than girls, but the gap has narrowed.)
Could your child be next? What’s a parent to do? Don’t assume that your child won’t have the opportunity to try smoking. Instead, be proactive and help your child resist the temptation. As Erika Sward, spokeswoman for the American Lung Association, notes, “Kids take their cues from their parents.” Here are some simple steps to help set the stage for your child to enjoy a lifetime of good lung health.
Set a good example. “Children of smokers are dramatically more likely to smoke, so the first thing you can do is not be a smoker yourself,” says Danny McGoldrick, vice president of research for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. “If you are, do everything that you can to quit.”
Keep a smoke-free home (and car). Not allowing anyone to smoke in your house reiterates your message to your kids that you really dislike smoking, which can influence their views of smoking as well. Also, research shows that it makes kids less likely to smoke.
Start talking. Don’t just assume they know what you want them to know. “It’s important that you begin a dialogue with your child when they’re very young,” says Sward. And make it clear that smoking is not acceptable and that there will be consequences, adds McGoldrick. “Be very, very clear on that,” he says.
Consider your child’s age. This is an important factor that can help you tailor your message depending on how old your child is. A younger child may be more receptive to a basic, straightforward “don’t smoke/it’s bad for you” message from Mom or Dad than a skeptical (read: eye-rolling) teenager. You can also explain to a younger child that smoking can make them sick, even if you don’t get into all the details.
But the talk shouldn’t stop when your child gets older. Don’t assume your teen should know right from wrong and will automatically opt out of picking up the habit. Instead, employ these additional tips when broaching the topic of smoking with teens:
- Appeal to their vanity. Try replacing the “You might get lung cancer” lecture with “Your breath is going to reek.” Teens don’t often deal with long-term consequences very well, notes adolescent medicine specialist Dr. Mary Romano of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, so remind them of the unsavory short-term consequences of smoking. The prospect of having stinky breath, yellow teeth and smelly clothes might be enough to deter some would-be teen smokers.
- Appeal to their wallets. The average cost of a pack of smokes is $5.51, according to the American Lung Association. A person with a one-pack-a-day habit will blow through nearly $40 a week, which isn’t inconsequential for a kid who’s only making minimum wage—the federal hourly minimum is $7.25—at a part-time job after school.
- Appeal to their sense of independence. Sward explains one of the most effective strategies for reaching teens is showing them how the tobacco companies are attempting to manipulate them into buying their products. “And youth and adolescents don’t like to be manipulated,” she says.
If your teen has already started smoking, don’t despair. You can help them kick the habit … the sooner, the better. Romano suggests, “The first step is to have a conversation with your child and figure out what’s up.”
Your child may have started smoking as the result of feelings of anxiety or depression or pressure (direct or indirect) from their peer group. By calmly talking with her, you may be able to get a sense of how willing she is to quit. Then arrange a consultation with your pediatrician.
“The earlier in your life you can quit, the better your long-term health prognosis will be,” says Sward.
To learn more about how to talk to kids about smoking and to help them avoid temptation or kick the habit, visit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.