It's just one cigarette
Ellie McCann, Extension Educator — Family Relations; Jodi Dworkin, Extension Specialist and Associate Professor — Department of Family Social Science
Revised 2011. Reviewed April 2017 by Jodi Dworkin.
Parents can greatly influence teens’ decision about whether or not to smoke, even when parents smoke. It may not seem like teens are listening, but parents’ voices are with them, even when parents are not.
What to Say to Your Teen
If parents do not talk with their teens and convey the clear message that they disapprove, tobacco use by teens is greater. When parents talk with their teens about the problems of tobacco use, teens are less likely to use tobacco.
The most effective conversations between parents and teens focus on issues that are important and relevant to the teen. Because youth often think tobacco use will not affect them until they are older, emphasize the immediate consequences of using cigarettes or e-cigarettes. The following are some suggestions to help guide your conversations.
- Physical consequences. Using tobacco causes bad breath, yellow teeth, smelly clothes and hair, stained fingers, phlegm, and a gross sounding cough.
- Tobacco’s impact on performance. Even among competitively trained young people, both performance and endurance are hindered by smoking. Young smokers have resting heart rates that are two to three beats per minute faster than nonsmokers.
- Chemicals in cigarettes. Cigarette smoke contains ammonia (used to clean toilets), cyanide (used to kill rats), and formaldehyde (used to preserve dead bodies). Although the content is lower, e-cigarettes also contain harmful toxins.
- Addiction caused by nicotine. Explain that teens get addicted to nicotine just like adults and when trying to quit will go through withdrawal symptoms. Most people could avoid becoming addicted to tobacco by staying free of tobacco use during adolescence. E-cigarettes also use nicotine that can lead to addiction.
- Most teens don’t smoke. Smoking is about the least popular thing to do if you want to hang out with other teenagers. Most consider smoking or chewing tobacco a foul, unattractive habit.
- Dispel the myths. Teens may think that smoking is viewed as sexy, and might even help them lose weight. These are myths. Make sure your teen has the facts about tobacco use.
Long-term Health Risks
Most teens have heard about tobacco’s health risks, but are usually not worried because the consequences seem so far into the future. Younger teens especially may be unable to understand or evaluate the long-term hazards such as lung cancer. They often feel that is something only older people should be worried about. Because e-cigarettes are still a relatively new product, and only recently regulated, there is no long term information on the health risks.
Facts to Consider
According to University of Michigan’s “Monitoring the Future” study, one in ten 12th graders and one in twenty 10th graders report having used cigarettes in the past 30 days. In addition, 12.5% of 12th graders and 11% of 10th graders report using electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes) and 9.5% of 12th graders and 4.9% of 10th graders report using flavored little cigars (cigarillos) in the past 30 days.
Teens are looking for ways to appear more adult and sophisticated. If they think using tobacco fits this image, teens may be more likely to smoke. Teens who are rebellious often believe they should be able to do whatever adults do. Since teens become addicted to nicotine quickly, they are often targeted by advertisements with false images that smoking is attractive.
Remember, the majority of adult smokers become addicted to tobacco as teens, so very few adults actually make the decision to start smoking. The time to intervene is now.
- Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death in America. Using tobacco results in more casualties than AIDS, alcohol, car accidents, murders, suicides, and illegal drugs combined.
- Nicotine addiction from any type of tobacco is the most common form of drug addiction and one of the most difficult to overcome.
- Nicotine use can become a “gateway” to drugs such as marijuana.
- A person who has not started smoking as a teenager is unlikely to ever smoke.
- Young people’s addiction to nicotine is not limited to smoking. Many youth also use e-cigarettes, cigarillos, and smokeless tobaccos such as snuff and chewing tobacco. Smokeless tobacco can cause oral cancer and gum disease.
- Tobacco companies distribute free merchandise like baseball caps and sunglasses that appeal to young people.
- The best way to prevent tobacco use is when teens spend time with friends who are against it. Peer pressure to avoid tobacco use can be more powerful than any other form of prevention.
Setting Family Rules
If you don’t want your teen to use tobacco, don’t make it a choice. Teens are not allowed to decide if they want to attend school or if they want to drive a vehicle without a license. When tobacco use is presented as something youth can and should decide for themselves, it implies the decision is not important to parents.
Establish a clear and firm no-tobacco-use policy for your teen, and consequences if the rules are broken. Parents who tolerate, look the other way, or approve of underage tobacco use are more likely to have children who use tobacco.
When parents model the behaviors they hope their teen will adopt and share their attitudes and opinions about their teen using tobacco, they can reduce the chances their teen will smoke.
There is hope! Teen smoking has been steadily declining since the 1990s. The use of e-cigarettes (vaping), although teen use has surpassed teen use of cigarettes, started to decline for the first time in 2016.
Miech, R. A., Johnston, L. D., O'Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (December 13, 2016). "Vaping, hookah use by US teens declines for first time." University of Michigan News Service: Ann Arbor, MI. Retrieved from http://www.monitoringthefuture.org/.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2016). E-Cigarette Use Among Youth and Young Adults: A Report of the Surgeon General—Executive Summary. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health.
Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — This Campaign is a leading force in the fight to reduce tobacco use and its deadly toll in the United States and around the world.
Tobacco/Nicotine — National Institute on Drug Abuse — Statistics, trends, videos, and publications about tobacco use.
Downloadable Resources — Partnership for Drug-Free Kids™ — Guides, how-tos, and quizzes for parents to use with their teens.
Tobacco Prevention and Control — Minnesota Department of Health — Learn what Minnesota is doing to create a state where all people are free from the harms of tobacco.
Teens Health: E-Cigarettes — The Nemours Foundation — What they are and the dangers of “vaping.”