Every parent knows what it's like to talk to their child and wonder if what they're saying is falling on deaf ears -- especially if the child in question is a teenager. But surveys have actually shown that kids (even teenagers) do think about their parents' ideas and advice when they're making tough decisions like whether to start smoking [source: National Health Information Center]. For example, kids who live in homes with strict no smoking rules are less likely than their peers to start smoking [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention].
When you talk to your kids about smoking, it's important to make sure you know the facts first. Make sure you're completely honest when you answer questions. Kids can usually tell if you're trying to hide the truth. If they catch you in a fib, they might have a hard time believing the rest of what you say [source: CDC]. And, as easy as it is for kids to find out the truth from sources like the Internet, you'll have a difficult time getting away with stretching the truth about smoking. So, be honest and upfront and open to answering any questions your kids might have. Read on for 10 questions your kids might ask about smoking and the facts you'll need to answer them truthfully.
What does smoking do to your health?
This is a big question, since most of the public conversation about smoking focuses on how the habit is bad for you. So do a little research on the health effects of smoking and fill your kids in on the dangers. For example, smoking increases risks of heart disease and stroke by two to four times [source: CDC]. It can cause various forms of cancer, including lung, larynx, stomach and throat cancer. It can also cause emphysema and other chronic breathing diseases. Add all those health risks up, and smoking is responsible for one out of every five deaths in the United States every year [source: CDC].
But while it's important to talk about the health risks of smoking, you're not as likely to get through to kids if you just spout off a lot of statistics about disease rates. Kids tend to think in the short term. Things like cancer, heart disease and strokes can seem too abstract and distant to really hit home. So make sure you talk about some of the immediate health effects of smoking [source: McCoy]. For example, they will have shortness of breath and frequent coughing. If your kid enjoys sports or other physical activities, explain that smoking will decrease their stamina and make it harder for them to do as well as they used to [source: McCoy]. Tell kids that smoking stains teeth, also, and leaves breath and hair smelly [source: National Health Information Center]. Bad breath might be a bigger worry for a lot of kids than getting sick in another 40 or 50 years.
Why shouldn't I smoke if you do (or used to)?
If you're a smoker, or you used to be and your kids know about it, this can be a very tricky question to answer. It can feel hypocritical to tell your children not to smoke when you go through a pack a day, or if they remember you smoking in the house when they were younger. The best thing to do is to be honest. Explain that you regret becoming a smoker and wish you'd never started [source: Dowshen]. That can also be an opportunity to teach an important lesson about how addictive cigarettes are and how hard it is for smokers to kick the habit.
If you're ready to quit, you can make a pact with your child that you will quit if they agree not to start smoking. Or if they've already started, you can agree to quit together. If you don't think you'll be able to quit, at least try to stop smoking in the house, in the car and around others. Explain that you smoke outside because you know it's an unhealthy habit and you don't want to expose other people to second-hand smoke.
All my friends smoke, so shouldn't I be able to?
Sometimes, kids can be very adamant about their desire to smoke. If they have friends at school who smoke, they might want to light up so those people will think they're cool. But you can establish that, whether or not your kids like it, you have rules about smoking, just like anything else in the house. For example, you can't get your driver's license until you turn 16, and you have to do chores every week. Compare more mundane rules like those to your rules about smoking [source: Dowshen].
It's also a good idea to help kids understand peer pressure, and give them the confidence they need to do things differently than their friends or the popular crowd. Practice scenarios with them, and teach them what to say if someone offers them a cigarette. There's no need to get preachy. Tell your kids they can deflect the situation with humor, saying they don't like the smell, for example [source: Health Canada]. Or that they tried smoking before but don't really like it. Finally, if someone does judge them or exclude them for making "different" decisions, encourage them to spend time with other kids who will be more accepting [source: Dowshen].
If I can't smoke, is it okay to chew tobacco?
Believe it or not, smokeless tobacco is actually popular among high school children, especially boys. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that around 20 percent of high school boys in the United States use some form of smokeless tobacco. By comparison, only about 2 percent of high school girls do [source: Dowshen]. However, the idea that chewing tobacco, dip and snuff are somehow less dangerous than smoking is a myth. It's mostly the nicotine in cigarettes that contributes to the risk of heart disease, by raising heart rate and blood pressure. So chewing tobacco, which also contains nicotine, increases risks of heart attack and stroke, just like cigarettes [source: Mayo Clinic].
Chewing tobacco still poses a sizable risk of developing cancer, including cancers of the esophagus, mouth, gums, tongue and lips. The surgeries used to treat these types of cancers can leave you with a face that is scarred forever. Point this out: The idea of a missing jaw or a huge hole in the neck might be more dramatic for kids than stomach or lung cancer. Like you did when you answered questions about cigarettes, point to some of the more short term physical effects of chewing. For example, smokeless tobacco usually contains large amounts of sugar, so it causes cavities, loss of enamel and rotten teeth. It can also cause gum disease and tiny white spots inside the mouth called leukoplakia, an early indicator of mouth cancer [source: Mayo Clinic].
Are menthol cigarettes less harmful?
There are a lot of rumors circulating about how menthol cigarettes are or aren't different from regular cigarettes. Kids might have heard from friends that menthol cigarettes are less addictive, or that they don't cause cancer as much as regular cigarettes. It's important to separate rumor from fact. Let kids know that menthol cigarettes have all of the same harmful substances as regular, unflavored cigarettes. Adding menthol doesn't really change much about how cigarettes are made. In fact, even most non-flavored cigarettes contain a small amount of menthol [source: National Cancer Institute]. Some anti-smoking advocates claim that menthol is actually more addictive than unflavored cigarettes, since they make it easier to try smoking without the unpleasant taste. On the other hand, there have been studies that suggest menthol cigarettes are no more addictive. The truth is, research into the question of menthol's addictiveness compared to regular cigarettes is still largely undecided [source: Steenhuysen].
If cigarettes are so bad for you, why aren't they illegal?
Kids might be curious about why, if cigarettes are as harmful as you say, people are still able to buy them in stores and smoke them. Shouldn't something so bad for you be illegal? You can explain that, in some ways, cigarettes are illegal. For example, state laws prevent retailers from selling cigarettes to minors. Many states, and some foreign countries, have public smoking bans in effect for restaurants, public buildings, even some outside areas. Explain that those bans have been passed in recent years because of the negative health effects of smoking -- especially the dangers of second-hand smoke [source: CDC].
You can also give your kids a lesson about the history of regulations and tell them that lawmakers over the years have been making new laws to regulate smoking slowly over time. You might want to explain how tobacco companies once tried to hide the addictive nature of cigarettes from the public. Tell them how ads geared toward kids, as well as flavored cigarettes, have now been outlawed for their protection. You can even appeal to a kid's sense of rebellion against authority if you can convince them the tobacco companies are trying to manipulate kids to smoke [source: American Lung Association].
Are e-cigarettes just as dangerous?
Maybe you've seen ads for e-cigarettes on the Internet. Or maybe you've seen displays set up at mall kiosks selling the contraptions. They're still a niche product, but their visibility online and in malls could mean that your kids will be asking questions about them, maybe before you even get a chance to figure out what they are. Essentially, e-cigarettes vaporize a liquid form of nicotine, allowing the buzz of smoking without tobacco or smoke. What you inhale when you "smoke" e-cigarettes is actually a combination of water vapor and vaporized nicotine. Makers of these alternative cigarettes claim they are safer, that they have fewer negative health effects than cigarettes and that they can even be a smoking cessation aid [source: Sohn].
However, e-cigarettes aren't regulated by the FDA, and there have not been any extensive scientific studies to prove the manufacturers' claims [source: Katz]. And be careful: Because of how they're sold, it's not difficult for kids to buy them online without parental permission. Since they're largely sold over the Internet by companies that can be unreliable, the manufacturing quality of the products is also unregulated. Malfunctioning units with problems like leaking nicotine cartridges are common [source: Sohn]. Since e-cigarettes are still so new and unknown, it's probably best to tell your children that they are not safer than regular cigarettes, at least until more information becomes available.
Does everyone get addicted?
Kids might wonder if it's possible to smoke every once in awhile without becoming addicted. Can't they just smoke when they want, like at a party or with friends, and stop later? This can be tricky. Maybe the child heard this as a rumor, or from an unreliable source. However, it's actually true that about 10 percent of people who smoke are not addicted to nicotine [source: Reinberg]. But when you talk to your kids, stress the highly addictive nature of nicotine, not this small percentage. Nicotine is extremely addictive -- more addictive than heroin, in fact [source: University of Minnesota]. Explain to kids that it's not worth taking the risk just on the chance that they are in that lucky 10 percent. Also, while non-addicted smokers won't have physical withdrawal symptoms, they will have many of the same powerful psychological urges to smoke that all ex-smokers struggled with.
Why do movies and TV shows show people smoking so much?
Kids can start to wonder why smoking is such a big deal if they see characters in their favorite movies and television shows smoking all the time. The key here is to remind your children about the difference between reality and fiction. Or if they are younger, teach them the difference [source: Dowshen]. On TV, people who smoke look cool, but the story never goes on to show the negative consequences that can happen later in life. Try to stress the adverse effects of smoking and how the images on TV and in movies are misleading [source: Health Canada]. It's not a bad idea to start this conversation early. Talk to kids about smoking and the media from a young age.
I'm already a smoker, how can I quit?
One of the more difficult conversations you can have with a child is after they admit to you that they have started smoking. It's tempting in a situation like this to blow up and punish the child for going against your rules. But it's important to show your child that you respect and admire them for coming out and telling the truth. So don't focus on punishment, but instead on ways to get through quitting together [source: Dowshen]. If they're serious about quitting, the difficulties of that process are often punishment enough.
Pediatricians can offer help quitting smoking. They can offer prescriptions for smoking cessation drugs, or give advice on whether to use patches, gum, lozenges or other quitting aids. They can also talk your child through the process, if you would feel more comfortable relying on a professional [source: McCoy]. Try to be supportive during the quitting process. Here are a few tips to pass along to your child:
- Have your child write down reasons for quitting. Remind them to look over the list when it gets tough. Teach them to breathe deeply and concentrate on positive thinking during cravings, which will only last a few minutes at a time, and a few weeks total.
- Show them how they can use things like carrot sticks and gum to help satisfy the oral fixations.
- Even if your child slips up, don't blow up at them. Try to stay supportive and encourage them to get back to quitting immediately [source: Mayo Clinic].
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Lots More Information
More Great Links
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- Brant County Health Unit. "Talking to Your Kids About Smoking." http://www.bchu.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=942&Itemid=290
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- Sohn, Emily. "How Safe are E-cigarettes?" Discovery News. Jan. 26, 2011. (April 28, 2011) http://news.discovery.com/human/e-cigarettes-health-nicotine-tobacco-110127.html
- Steenhuysen, Julie. "Menthol Cigarettes No More Risky, Study Suggests." Reuters. March 23, 2011. (April 26, 2011) http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/03/23/us-tobacco-menthol-idUSTRE72M88M20110323
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