Teen-agers and Tobacco Use

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Teen-agers and Tobacco Use

Guiding Your Child Through The Adolescent Years
Injury and Illness Prevention
Teen-agers and Tobacco Use
Teen-agers and Tobacco Use
Know the risks of tobacco use and learn how to talk to your child about them.
InteliHealth Medical Content
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Teen-agers and Tobacco Use

Each day, more than 3,200 young people will try their first cigarette, and about 2,100 of children and young adults will turn smoking into a daily habit.

In data collected from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention MMWR report, in 2012 6.7% of middle school and 23.3% of high school students reported current use of any tobacco product.  Although there has been a slight decrease in the number of younger tobacco users, early cigarette use has been associated with addiction in the adult years. Parents must still be vigilant to teach their children the dangers associated with smoking from an early age.

Why do teens use tobacco?

Teens will imitate what they see around them. If their parents, siblings or friends smoke, teens are more likely to smoke. Advertisements and the media also are powerful influences. For example, some teens may try tobacco because they see TV stars smoking, sports figures chewing tobacco, and/or popular cartoon characters advertising cigarettes. Some teen-agers use cigarettes as a way to diet and keep their weight down, instead of eating nutritious foods and exercising to stay healthy.

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Why do teens who try tobacco keep using it?

Nicotine is extremely habit-forming (addictive). One puff on a cigarette can excite the brain within 10 seconds, quickly activating the same pathways that control feelings of pleasure. A person can become physically hooked on nicotine after smoking as few as 100 cigarettes and emotionally hooked after only a few cigarettes. Genetic factors also may play a role in influencing how a person reacts to nicotine.

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Effects of smoking

Smoking damages the lungs and can cause problems throughout the body. Teens (and adults, for that matter) who smoke often have more colds (upper respiratory infections), sinus infections, and lung infections (pneumonia), as well as frequent cough and worsening asthma symptoms. People who smoke often look older than they actually are. Smoking eventually leads to more serious lung disease, lung cancer and even death. Tobacco also causes narrowing of blood vessels, which may result in a heart attack.

Young people who smoke are more likely to get lower grades in school, be absent from school or drop out of school. They may also have a low self-image. Teens who smoke also are at risk of using other drugs. Tobacco is often the first drug used by kids who later use alcohol, marijuana and other drugs.

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Other types of tobacco

Besides traditional cigarettes, tobacco also is smoked in cigars, pipes and small brown hand-rolled cigarettes (called bidis), as well as chewed, so-called smokeless tobacco or snuff. Tobacco in these forms also causes serious health problems. Cigar and pipe tobacco increase the risk of heart disease and lung disease (for example, emphysema) and cancers of the lung, mouth or throat. Bidis contain more than three times the amount of carbon monoxide and nicotine as regular cigarettes, which increases the likelihood of heart or lung diseases, as well as cancers of the mouth, throat, lung, stomach or liver. Smokeless tobacco can cause mouth cancer and leukoplakia, a white rash in the mouth that over time can turn into mouth cancer.

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Talking with teens about tobacco

It is important for all parents to talk with their children about tobacco starting at a very early age. Here are some suggestions for getting across to your children the messages about tobacco:

  • Explain that smoking is extremely dangerous and unhealthy. It definitely makes breathing very difficult, which then makes it harder to run and play sports.
  • Make sure your teen understands that smoking is addictive, meaning that if he starts smoking, it is often near impossible to quit.
  • Point out that tobacco smoke smells bad; stains teeth, fingernails and skin; and even makes clothes, hair and breath smell bad, too.
  • Make it clear to your teen that smoking is an expensive habit. Talk about all the other things your teen could buy with the money.
  • When you see cigarette ads, talk with your teen about what the ads are actually trying to sell: maturity, beauty, sexual attraction, wealth and "coolness." Make it clear that cigarette smoking cannot provide anybody with these things.
  • Point out to your teen that most young people don't smoke or chew tobacco. Teens see many cigarette ads and references to smoking in the media and may think that smoking is more common than it truly is.
  • Role play with your teen to prepare him to deal with pressure from friends to try tobacco. Pretend to be a classmate or friend offering your teen a cigarette and let your teen practice different responses.
  • Share your own experiences and mistakes. Don't be afraid to be honest and tell your teen, "I don’t want you to smoke."
  • Set and enforce clear rules about tobacco use in your household.
  • Set a good example for your teen. If you do smoke, quit today.

Please talk with your teen today about the dangers of tobacco use. Most adult smokers started using tobacco before they finished high school. If your teen makes it to graduation without trying a cigarette, chances are good that he never will.

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Last updated September 08, 2014

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