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It's important to teach your children about the dangers of smoking. But we also know how hard it can be to compete with advertising that glamorizes smoking and makes it appear to be the norm. Still, the bottom line is that your children need your help to avoid smoking or to quit if they have started. Parents really can make a difference!
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Why do young people start smoking?
Almost 90 percent of adults who become regular smokers began smoking at or before age 18. If smoking causes so many health problems, why do young people start smoking?
Young people might take up smoking because their parents or friends smoke. They may see smoking as a way of rebelling and showing their independence. Increasingly, studies are showing that tobacco advertising is a major factor in teens' decisions to start smoking. In fact, it may be an even more important risk factor for smoking than being exposed to parents or friends who smoke.
During elementary school and the early part of middle school, most children have not yet tried a cigarette. If asked, most state that they will never smoke. As they get older, some become more open to the idea of smoking. Studies show that getting a cigarette promotional item makes it almost three times more likely that a teen will start smoking. Such an item may be a T-shirt, toy, or cigarette lighter that has a cigarette brand logo.
Tobacco companies carefully shape their advertising campaigns to portray smokers as cool, independent, fun, sexually attractive, and living on the edge. Some teens are attracted to this image. Being given cigarette promotional items offers them the opportunity to "try on the image of a smoker." As a result, they try smoking, and some get hooked.
Another reason that some teens start smoking is to stay thin. This is more of a factor for girls than boys. One study reported that half of high school girls who smoke but only one-quarter of high school boys who smoke do so to control their weight.
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Teens and quitting smoking
Most teens think that they can stop smoking easily. Only 3 in 100 high school smokers think they will be smoking in five years. In fact, 60 in 100 will still be smoking seven to nine years later, according to the American Cancer Society. It will take 16 to 20 years of addicted smoking before the average person who started smoking as a teen will be able to successfully quit.
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What parents can do
Here are some things you can do to help your children avoid the dangers of smoking:
- Talk with your children about the health effects of smoking. Giving examples of family members or friends who have suffered from smoking-related illnesses can make the effects of smoking seem more real.
- Keep the lines of communication open. Develop a trusting and comfortable relationship with your children, so you can talk honestly about important issues such as smoking. This includes being a good listener. When your children feel comfortable talking with you, they will be more likely to tell you if they've started smoking or are being pressured to smoke.
- Spend quality time with your children. Eating meals together is a great way to relax and talk about the day. Did you know that children whose families eat together at least five times a week are less likely to be involved with drugs and alcohol?
- Get to know your children's friends and how your children are spending their time. This will help you know when to step in and give your children guidance and support.
- Teach your children how to say NO to tobacco. Every day, your children may be faced with opportunities to use tobacco. Talk with them about ways they can tell their friends that they don't want to smoke.
- Be a good role model — don't smoke and quit if you do! Teens who have smoking parents are more likely to smoke themselves. What you do affects your children more than you might think.
- Set rules and stick by them. Set curfews, which can help kids handle peer pressure to smoke.
- Praise your children regularly and show affection. This will help your children to believe in themselves and feel good about who they are.
- Talk to your children about smoking in the media. Smoking may look cool in movies or in advertisements, but the media doesn't tell the whole story. They don't show the health problems or the yellow teeth, smelly breath, and wrinkled skin caused by smoking. Show your children how tobacco companies use advertising campaigns to manipulate young people.
- Support tax hikes on cigarettes. A high price for cigarettes may be the most effective way to prevent teens from becoming regular smokers. One study found that a 10 percent increase in the price of cigarettes would decrease the number of children who started smoking by 3 to 10 percent.
- Encourage your state to start a tobacco control program. Such a program should include school classes at every grade level about the dangers of smoking, programs to help teens quit smoking, and enforcing the laws that prevent stores from selling tobacco to teens. It should also include an anti-tobacco media campaign for teens that shows how the tobacco industry targets them as potential smokers. When Florida adopted a tobacco control program with all these elements, smoking rates dropped by 47 percent among middle school students and 30 percent among high school students.
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Content last updated: May 19, 2010.
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