10 Ways to Talk to Your Kids About Smoking

The effects of smoking aren't glamorous. See more drug pictures.

The health risks of smoking tobacco are well-known, including its link to cancer, chronic disease and premature death. But every day, about 4,000 young people try cigarettes, and an additional 1,000 kids under 18 become regular smokers [source: Riordan].

Ninety percent of adult smokers started before the age of 18, with the peak age for first-time users being between 11 and 13 years old [source: Riordan]. These statistics aren't surprising, with smoking often glamorized in movies, television and pop culture.


So, what do you do to keep your kid from taking up the habit? First, it's reassuring to know that if a person hasn't started smoking by age 19, it's unlikely that he or she ever will. It's also good to know that although society, events and the media impact kids, parents remain the greatest influence in their lives.

Bringing up the topic of smoking might be tough, but it's important to talk about it, because you can make a difference. Read on for some tips on how to go about it.


Start Young

Talk to your kids early and often about smoking. Kids as young as 5 can understand that smoking is bad for them. Multiple conversations from early childhood through high school will reinforce negative attitudes about tobacco [source: Partnership for a Tobacco-Free Maine.

You'll want your message to be age appropriate. Add more statistics and health information as your kids get older, and gauge their understanding to make sure your message is getting across.


When your kids are young, for example, start by comparing smoking to the pollution they see coming from car exhaust. Equate the exhaust polluting the air to cigarette smoke polluting their body.

Your 9-year-old or 10-year-old might be interested in chemistry. Tell your son or daughter about tar, the main cancer-causing element in cigarettes. Explain that nicotine narrows the blood vessels, causing your heart to pump harder. Discuss how carbon monoxide, a waste product of smoking, replaces oxygen in the red blood cells [source: Schwebel].

When your kids turn 11 or 12, compare the thrill of smoking to the excitement of riding a roller coaster. The more a person gets used to smoking, the less of a thrill it is, and the more they'll have to smoke to get the same thrill [source: Schwebel]. Preteens will understand the addictive control cigarettes have and the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms a smoker experiences when they quit, like the shakes, nausea and weight gain.

When your kids are in high school, engage them in dialogue. Listen to their point of view, discuss your feelings and allow disagreement if it occurs.


Include But Don't Harp on the Dangers

There are short and long-term consequences of smoking cigarettes.
There are short and long-term consequences of smoking cigarettes.

Kids who know the facts are more likely to make good choices. So, you'll want to make sure yours understand the dangers of smoking.

Although your kids might think they're immune to addiction, smokers can get hooked on the habit within days of taking that first puff [source: Riordan]. Tell them about the immediate effects smoking will have on their bodies. They may experience some coughing and throat irritation, respiratory problems, reduced immune function and an increased susceptibility to illness such as influenza.


Over the long haul, the effects are much more serious. Nicotine affects mood, heart, lungs, stomach and the nervous system. It's the main cause of chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Smoking doubles the chances of heart disease and is one of the three leading causes of heart attacks. It's also the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States [source: Nemours].

While your kids need to know these facts, it might not be enough to deter them from the practice. In some instances, the more you talk about the dangers, the more inclined they might be to satisfy their own curiosity by giving it a try. To prevent smoking from becoming the "forbidden fruit" in your household, be sure to present the dangers as part of a larger, ongoing communication.


Use Images

It's been said that a picture's worth a thousands words. That's definitely true when it comes to getting the message across to your kids about smoking.

Show your kids pictures of healthy lungs alongside ones from someone with lung cancer or emphysema. They'll notice a dramatic difference between the slightly pink normal lungs and the tar-blackened, disfigured lungs of the smoker.


A picture of a chronic smoker with gray, leathery, wrinkled skin might also be a deterrent. Smoking dries skin and squeezes blood vessels, which causes premature aging. It also turns a person's fingernails yellow, stains their teeth and can cause rotting gums [source: Schwebel]. Not a pretty picture.

You can also demonstrate the effects of smoking. Have a smoker blow a mouthful of cigarette smoke through a tissue or clean handkerchief. Explain to your kids that the tar left on the tissue is about the same as what is left in their lungs when they smoke [source: Schwebel].


Make the Rules Clear

This seems pretty clear.
This seems pretty clear.

What you say and what you do should give your kids a consistent message. Establishing nonsmoking rules in your household will emphasize that you're truly committed to your beliefs.

Talk to your kids about your values and expectations. Tell them you don't want them to smoke and that you'll be disappointed if they do. Explain that your rules are a way of looking after their health, just as you do with the foods they eat and the exercise they get. Be clear about the consequences that will be enforced if they do choose to smoke.


No-smoking rules should pertain to everyone, not just your kids. Ban smoking from your house and your car. If guests, friends or relatives want to smoke, send them outside.


Appeal to Their Vanity

Appearance is important to kids, particularly as they enter their teen years. Take advantage of this opportune time to emphasize the effects of smoking on a person's physical appearance. Explain that smoking will give them bad breath, yellow teeth and smelly clothes. It will discolor their nails, wrinkle their skin and dry their hair [source: Mayo Clinic Staff]. It will also cause shortness of breath, which might prevent them from becoming their school's track star.

Use advertising to launch your discussion. They'll see smokers portrayed as attractive, sexy, athletic, rugged, popular and thin. Ask them what they think the advertiser wants them to think and what the strategies might be behind the advertising. Point out the distortions and teach them to be suspicious of advertising. This exercise will not only help keep them from smoking, but will increase their critical thinking skills and help build your parent-child alliance.



Remember to Listen

Do your kids have your full attention?
Do your kids have your full attention?
┬ęGetty Images/Jupiterimages/Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

Open communication with your kids about smoking will make it easier to talk, and continue talking, about the subject.

Give them your full attention, without the distractions of television or your cell phone. Keep the conversation light and resist lecturing.


Put them at ease. Some kids are more comfortable if they're not looking you straight in the eye. If they're doing something that doesn't require their full attention, let them continue while you talk.

Use everyday events to broach the subject. If you see kids on the street smoking, talk about why they might be smoking away from home and why they might have started. If your kids are going to a party or event where smoking might be accepted, discuss their feelings about it. Ask them what they think about an uncle or cousin who smokes.

Find out what your kids already know and show that you value their opinions and ideas. Don't judge. Discuss it in a way that doesn't make them fear punishment.

Be clear, direct and honest with your kids. Know your facts so you're prepared to answer any questions they may have. And if you don't know the answer, look it up together.


Consider the Other Point of View

Understanding why your kids might be drawn to smoking will help you combat the attraction. They may want to look cool, act older, lose weight, seem tough or feel independent. Kids might start smoking because it seems exciting, they want to satisfy their curiosity or they're just bored. Find out what appeals to your kids about smoking and talk to them using language and experiences that are relevant to them.

If your kids want to be part of the group, encourage them to get involved in nonsmoker activities, such as sports or singing in a choir. Smoking directly affects a kid's athletic performance by hindering his or her ability to breathe well and reducing the amount of oxygen available for their muscles. Proper breathing is also an important requirement for singing. If your kids enjoy sports or choir, they probably won't enjoy smoking.


If appearance is their issue, tell them that the effects of smoking on their skin, teeth and hair will make them look worse, not better. Join them in an exercise program and teach them how to make nutritional food choices.

If they want to act older, give them some leeway to exert their independence. Increasing their responsibilities around the house or putting them in charge of resolving a family matter can also help.

Kids sometimes use smoking as a way to withdraw from life's problems [source: Schwebel]. Be sure to help them find other ways to work through daily issues and develop their problem solving skills.


Teach Them to Say "No"

There are others who can help you send the message.
There are others who can help you send the message.

Ask your kids what their friends and classmates think about smoking. If your kids' peers smoke, it's likely they will be offered a cigarette at some time. Get them prepared to counter peer pressure before it happens.

Have a discussion with your kids about how they can say "no" if offered a cigarette. Depending on the situation, they can simply refuse, change the subject, leave the situation or voice their opposition to smoking. Role-playing with your kids will help them feel more comfortable with their response.


Building their self-confidence is another good way to protect them against peer pressure. Kids are more likely to experiment with tobacco if their self-esteem is low or if they're starved for affection [source: VanClay]. Remember to congratulate them on their accomplishments, give them encouragement when they need it and reassure them that you love them just the way they are.


Share Your Experiences

Learning from experience is an effective way to learn, whether it's your experience or the experiences of others.

Get your kids involved in the learning process by asking them to interview adults who smoke and some who don't. Have them find out what they think about the habit, why the individuals chose to, or not to, smoke and what they would do differently if they had the chance.


If you've had a friend or family member die from a tobacco-related illness, talk to your kids about it. Tell them about your loved one, the anger you felt when they became sick and the feelings you had when they died.

Parents who smoke are more likely to have children who smoke [source: Riordan]. So, if you smoke, it's time to quit. As you go through the cessation process, talk to your kids about why you want to quit and your struggles doing so. Express your regrets about starting in the first place and stress how important it is to you that they remain smoke free.


Get Help

Someone hasn't learned to say "no."
Someone hasn't learned to say "no."

In your fight against smoking, it's good to know there are others on your side. Many schools have antismoking campaigns or clubs your kids can join to discourage students from smoking. If your kids' school doesn't have a program, you might want to help your school administrators start one.

Although you can deliver the same message as your doctor, reinforcement from an expert can be helpful [source: Schwebel]. Ask your doctor to talk to your kids about the health ramifications of smoking during their annual appointment.


You'll find plenty of free literature on smoking from the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association and American Heart Association. Request brochures from the organizations or download it from their Web sites. Read the information together with your kids, discuss the important details and answer any questions they might have.


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  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Youth and Tobacco." May 29, 2009. (April 26, 2011)http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/youth/information_sheet/index.htm
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