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Smoking and Children


Why is tobacco use by children and teens a problem?

Nine out of ten tobacco users start smoking or using tobacco when they are under 18 years old. Children who start smoking at a young age are less likely to quit when they become adults. Smokers tend to die at an earlier age than non-smokers and are more likely to die from a smoking-related illness like cancer, heart disease, or lung disease. Using smokeless tobacco causes gum disease, mouth cancer, and heart disease.

Secondhand smoke is also a problem. It causes thousands of lung cancer deaths in nonsmokers every year, and hundreds of thousands of lower respiratory infections in babies and young children. It increases the chances that children will get asthma, and makes symptoms worse in people who already have asthma. Exposure to secondhand smoke even affects how well children do in school.

Why do children smoke?

Children may start smoking to fit in with friends who smoke. They may want to look cool, older, or rebellious. They may think it will help them to lose weight. Or they may believe it will help them relax and feel better.

Nicotine, the active ingredient in tobacco, is as addictive as heroin and cocaine. It excites the brain in the same way that cocaine, morphine, and amphetamines do. Smokers get a dose of nicotine within seconds of lighting up. Their brains are stimulated and they feel more alert and feel like they can concentrate better.

Smokers quickly develop a dependence on tobacco. This means that they crave more nicotine and the feelings it produces. When smokers try to quit they feel irritable, depressed, hungry, tired, and restless. They have trouble sleeping or trouble concentrating.

What are the signs that my child is using tobacco?

Signs of smoking may include:

  • smelling like smoke
  • bad breath
  • stained teeth
  • coughing a lot
  • less ability to do athletic things like run or swim
  • shortness of breath
  • sore throat or hoarse voice

If you notice these signs, it does not mean that your child is smoking regularly, but you should talk with your child. If your child admits to smoking or using smokeless tobacco, ask what the attraction to tobacco is. Point out that it causes bad breath, stained teeth, and stinky clothing. Short-term results mean more to most children than long-term risks such as cancer. Ask your child to think about the things he or she could buy with the money they are spending on tobacco.

In the end, your child will decide whether or not to smoke. However, parents can make it clear that there are consequences for smoking and rewards for not smoking.

How can I help my child?

Children who know that their parents disapprove of smoking are less likely to start. Let your children know that you do not want them to smoke. When they are young, point out how smelly and dirty smoking is. As children approach the teen years, look for a chance to introduce them to a friend or relative with a tobacco-related illness who can show them firsthand the long-term risks of smoking.

If you smoke, tell your child that you wish you had never started to smoke, and why. Talk about how addictive and expensive it is, and how hard it is to quit. Then get the support you need to stop smoking. Nothing you say about tobacco will be as powerful as the example you set for your child.

If your child is smoking, help him or her make a plan to quit. Many smokers find that it works best to set a date to quit and tell their friends and family about it. Some decrease the amount they are smoking before that date to make it easier. Others smoke the same amount right up until that date.

It helps if your child changes daily routines. Help them take on new activities that don't include smoking. They could join an exercise group or take up a sport. They might want to try pottery, drawing, making models, or other activities to keep the hands busy. Encourage them to spend time with people who don't smoke. It is also helpful to learn ways to relax and manage stress.

Nicotine replacements like the nicotine patch, gum, nasal spray, inhalers, or lozenges can help smokers break the physical addiction to nicotine. Chantix, Zyban and nicotine replacements are not approved for use in children less than 18 years old.

Hypnosis and acupuncture may help some people to quit smoking.

Keep in mind that most smokers don't manage to quit the first time they try. It often takes several attempts to quit for good. Do not despair or get angry if an attempt fails. Encourage your child to try again.

You may be able to find a program for teens through local hospitals or the American Cancer Society. Or you can call the National Cancer Institute at 800-422-6237. They can send information and talk with you and your child to help you make a realistic plan to quit.


Developed by RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-12-22
Last reviewed: 2010-04-26

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

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