You and Your Teen and Smoking

Published on Apr 01, 2015
Authored by Larry Samuels, PhD

Did you know that each day there are more than 3,200 people, under the age of 18, who smoke their first cigarette? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that in 2012, 7% of middle school and 23% of high school students reported current use a tobacco product. And according to the Department of Health and Human Services it is estimated that each day approximately 2,100 youth and young adults who are occasional smokers become daily smokers.

Most adult smokers today state that they started smoking by age 18. In 2010, close to 70% of adult smokers reported that they would like to quit. Research has shown that people who start smoking during adolescence may have the hardest time quitting. It is not surprising to hear that many people attempt to quit smoking several times before they are successful. Remember that addiction to nicotine is a chronic, relapsing medical condition and should be treated as such.

Harmful Effects of Teen Smoking

Tobacco use in teenagers and young adults can cause both immediate and long-term harm. Though some parents may emphasize the long-term impact of smoking on their teen’s health — as they should — teenagers and young adults may be more persuaded by the immediate and early negative effects. These include:

  • Reduced physical fitness. Smoking reduces lung function and lung growth. It also causes shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and increased phlegm.
  • Early heart disease. Smoking can damage the heart and blood vessels which can increase the risk for atherosclerosis and heart disease.
  • Poor oral health. Smokers may suffer from yellow teeth, bad breath and other mouth problems.
  • Poor skin. Smoking is associated with skin wrinkling and early skin damage.

Adolescent tobacco use is concerning because adolescents are still growing and their brains are still developing. Signals in the brain move more slowly than in a mature brain. The decision-making part of the teenage brain that is responsible for impulse control and planning is not fully developed, so teens may make more impulsive decisions — such as starting to smoke tobacco — compared to adults.

In addition, a recent research study suggested that teenagers may be more vulnerable to nicotine addiction than adults. This study showed that adolescent rats were more prone to developing addiction than adult rats, and this increased susceptibility may be linked to differences in activity between the adolescent brain and the adult brain.

The harmful effects of nicotine in teenagers and young adults create an important call to action for parents. Speak with your children today about the hazards of smoking, the addictive grip of nicotine, and the difficulty in quitting.

Discussing Smoking with Teens

It is important to point out to your teen the potential harm associated with tobacco use. Though the long-term negative health outcomes of smoking are most important to discuss, many adolescents may be more concerned with the impact that smoking has on their lives today than they are with their health in the far future. Emphasizing the immediate negative impacts of smoking to your teen may help get their attention. 

Remind your kids that:

  • Smoking around friends or siblings can also be damaging to them, as secondhand smoke is a known harmful toxin.
  • Teens who smoke may be sick more often than their non-smoking peers and may develop lung problems or have more asthma attacks. This can harm their athletic performance.
  • Smoking may lead to the use of alcohol and other drugs.
  • Smoking has a negative effect on their personal appearance (i.e., bad breath, yellow teeth, poor skin).

Also remind your kids about these damaging long-term impacts on their health:

  • Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death in the United States and in the world.
  • Smoking is a well-known cause of heart disease, cancers, and stroke.
  • Smoking decreases life expectancy.
  • Nicotine has adverse effects on brain development which could have lasting effects on memory and attention.

Social Smoking Trends: Hookahs and e-Cigarettes

According to the CDC, from 2011 to 2012, there was a significant increase in hookah use in high school students. Hookahs are water pipes used to smoke specially made flavored tobacco such as mint, apple, cappuccino, or coconut. This form of “social smoking” is often thought to be less harmful, but hookah smoking has many of the same health risks as cigarette smoking.

Also popular among adolescents are electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes). This 2012 survey also found that from 2011 to 2012, there was a significant increase in e-cigarette use in both middle school and high school students. Nicotine in e-cigarettes is heated by a battery and vaporized and inhaled (or vaped), rather than lit with a flame and smoked. More than a 250,000 youths who had never smoked a cigarette used electronic cigarettes in 2013. Additionally, a 2012 study found that 76% of middle and high school students who used e-cigarettes within the past 30 days also smoked conventional cigarettes around the same time.

Currently, there is no significant data indicating that vaporized nicotine causes young people to try other tobacco products nor is there data proving that it is safe to use. It can be helpful to begin discussing these alternate methods of tobacco use with your teen and let them know they are not necessarily safe alternatives to conventional cigarettes.

Take a Parental Stand Against Tobacco

Speaking with your children early and often about the dangers of tobacco use is key. To do so, you may want to consider that:

  • Parents are role models and can have the greatest influence in their kids' lives. Set a positive example by tying to quit if you use tobacco. If you smoke, you can also choose not to use tobacco in your children's presence, not offer cigarettes to your kids, and not leave cigarettes where they can easily get it.
  • Starting the discussion about smoking when your kids are young and continuing it through their high school years, may be the best strategy for preventing teen smoking.
  • Knowing if your teen’s friends use tobacco can be important. You may be able to help them practice ways to refuse cigarettes and other tobacco products if their peers offer it to them.
  • Helping your kids understand that the media and movies may make smoking seem “cool” when it is actually very harmful can go a long way.

Remember, it’s much harder to quit smoking than it is to start smoking in the first place. Have your teen speak with an adult who smokes to understand just how difficult it is to stop smoking. It is vital for parents to have a positive influence on preventing adolescent smoking.

Dr. Larry Samuels was previously a Senior Medical Director at Pfizer in the Cardiovascular Metabolic Therapeutic Area and a former Research Scientist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

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