The Great American Smokeout is held each year on the third Thursday of November to encourage smokers to quit. In addition, all parents can use this event to start talking about the dangers of tobacco with their children.
Tobacco use is currently the single most preventable cause of death in the United States. People who start smoking early in life have the highest risk of smoking-related symptoms and illnesses including coughing, shortness of breath, colds, sinus infections, lung infections (pneumonia), lung cancer, poor physical fitness, heart disease and overall poorer health. Adolescents who smoke are more likely to use alcohol and illegal drugs, carry weapons, attempt suicide and engage in high-risk sexual behaviors.
The best way to prevent the problems that can develop due to smoking is to prevent children from ever smoking in the first place. When children and adolescents smoke, this often starts a lifelong smoking pattern. It is very easy for children and adolescents to become addicted to nicotine. An adolescent who completes high school without ever smoking is very unlikely to become a smoker in adulthood.
To prevent smoking in children, it is important for all parents to talk with their children about tobacco, starting at an early age. Here are some suggestions for getting the important messages about tobacco across to your children:
If your child or adolescent begins smoking, try the following suggestions, adapted from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
If you smoke, plan to quit today! You can use the Five Ds to help. Don't forget that exposure to secondhand smoke is also a significant health issue for children. Some of the harmful chemicals in secondhand smoke include nicotine, carbon monoxide and benzene. Exposure to passive smoke has been associated with ear infections, chronic breathing symptoms and infections, and poor lung function. Childhood exposure to smoke may increase the risk of developing environmental allergies and asthma, and can increase the number of emergency-room visits made by children who have asthma. Children of smokers also have more than three times the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) than children of nonsmokers, and risk is increased with number of cigarettes smoked per day.
If you cannot yet quit, keep the dangers to a minimum by limiting as much of your children’s exposure to tobacco as possible. Smoke outside, and NEVER smoke in the car. If you smoke in the house, use a room with good ventilation. Air-cleaning machines do not remove all the dangerous particles from the air. As we move toward the winter holiday season, remember that one of the best gifts you can give your children is keeping the air clean around them.
Henry H. Bernstein, D.O., is a senior lecturer in Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. In addition, he is chief of General Academic Pediatrics at Children's Hospital at Dartmouth and professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School. He is the former associate chief of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital Boston.