Strategies to help prevent teen smoking


April 21, 2016

There are ways to discourage them from trying cigarettes.


Most smokers first took up the habit as teenagers. Maybe they were trying to look hip. Maybe their friends smoked. Maybe they took their first puff on a dare. Probably none of them seriously worried about a lifelong addiction that can wreak havoc on their health.

But as thousands of Tennesseans can testify, it’s much harder to quit smoking than it is to avoid starting in the first place.

One of the best things you can do to protect your kids’ health for life is to discourage them from smoking. Not that teens will automatically obey what you say. But tell them “don’t smoke!” anyway — then employ these other strategies to discourage them from smoking:

  • “If you want kids who don’t smoke, parents shouldn’t smoke,” said Debra Braun-Courville, M.D., an adolescent health physician with Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt. Kids follow their parents’ example. The likehood of a teen smoking is much lower if they’re raised in a nonsmoking home.
  • If you smoke, quit.
  • If you haven’t quit, at least keep smoke out of the house and car to minimize your children’s exposure to it. Many studies have shown the health damages children suffer from secondhand smoke, from increased risk of sudden infant death syndrome to more frequent ear infections. Also, don’t keep your cigarettes in the house. Easy access to them encourages teen smoking. It’s simpler than you think for them to swipe some of your cigarettes out of curiosity.
  • Talk to your teens about cigarettes. Educating them about the hazards of smoking should happen long before high school. “Most teens start smoking by the age of 16, so it is important to start this topic of conversation early,” Braun-Courville said. Kids younger than 14 are very concrete in their thinking, she added. The long-term complications of smoking, such as cancer and heart disease, won’t scare them much, because those problems take years to develop. Teens have trouble focusing on events that far in the future. Instead, point out the icky aspects of smoking: stained teeth, bad breath, odor on their clothes and hair, chronic coughing.
  • Monitor your kids’ habits. Adolescents are more likely to smoke if their parents aren’t watching their actions closely. Pay attention to whether their friends smoke; teens are notoriously influenced by their peers.
  • Teach your kids how to turn down cigarettes without losing face. “If adolescents have a chronic medical problem such as asthma, I often encourage them to use this as crutch and reduce peer pressure,” Braun-Courville said. Cigarette smoking worsens asthma and reduces lung functioning. An asthmatic (or allergic) teen can truthfully tell friends, “No, I don’t want a cigarette. It gives me asthma attacks.” That might be an easier response than just “No, thanks.” Similarly, student athletes can back away from a cigarette, saying “I’m in training” for an upcoming tournament, or “the coach will bench me if I can’t run my fastest” or something else that puts the blame on the sport, not the teen. Hopefully your student athlete already understands that smoking will hurt his performance.
  • Point out that people’s smoking habits harm pets. Yes, even when teens don’t smoke in Fido’s presence.
  • Ask for backup from professionals, especially your child’s doctor. If she hasn’t already, ask the pediatrician to talk with your child at each appointment about the dangers of smoking. The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force found that those conversations dissuade kids from taking up cigarettes. (Again, a coach can be a big asset if he regularly warns the team against smoking.) “It is also really important to address any underlying mental health needs, as teens with depressive disorders (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder) are more likely to become regular users and to become nicotine dependent” compared with teens who don’t smoke, Braun-Courville said.
  • Some teens, especially girls, may smoke because they think it helps them lose weight. “However, the preponderance of evidence suggests that smoking is not associated with significant weight loss,” Braun-Courville said. If your daughter uses this as an excuse to smoke, explain that the best way to stay at a healthy weight is to eat a nutritious diet and get lots of physical activity. Once again, setting a good example will go a long way.
  • Teens are increasingly using e-cigarettes (“vaping”), possibly because they think this is less harmful than tobacco cigarettes. There hasn’t been enough research on e-cigarettes to thoroughly understand their health effects. But e-cigarettes do contain nicotine, the most addictive substance in regular cigarettes, so these are not a healthy choice for teens. Recent research also suggests that teens who use e-cigarettes are more likely to start smoking tobacco cigarettes later, compared with teens who don’t vape. If you discover that your child is vaping, encourage him to stop. Also, since Aug. 8, 2016, it is illegal to sell e-cigarettes to people under the age of 18, so if your teen is buying her own vapes, you may want to report the store that is violating this law.

If your teen is already smoking and needs help is a free texting service that anyone age 13 and up can use. It texts reminders and motivational messages to your cellphone to help you stay on track as you quit. Also, the Tennessee Tobacco Quitline offers smoking cessation counseling to teens; they’ll need parental consent depending on  age and services. Contact the Quitline by phone (1-800-QUIT-NOW) or online for more information.