The health risks of smoking are well known, but kids and teens continue to smoke and use chewing tobacco. Many young people pick up these habits every year — in fact, 90% of all adult smokers started when they were kids.

So it's important to make sure kids understand the dangers of smoking and using chewing tobacco:

  • Tobacco cigarettes are the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States, and can cause cancer, heart disease, and lung disease.
  • E-cigarettes, vape pens, and hookahs (water pipes), which have become popular in recent years, are filled with tobacco, nicotine, and other harmful chemicals. 
  • Chewing tobacco (smokeless or spit tobacco) can lead to nicotine addiction, oral cancer, gum disease, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks.

Talking with your kids about the risks of these products and setting clear rules about not using them can help protect them from these unhealthy habits. 

The Facts About Smoking and Tobacco

One reason that smoking and chewing tobacco are major health hazards is because they contain the chemical nicotine. Someone can get addicted to nicotine within days of first using it. In fact, the nicotine in tobacco can be as addictive as cocaine or heroin. Which means that once a person starts to smoke, it's very hard to stop.

Smoking and tobacco use can harm every body system and lead to health problems such as heart disease, stroke, emphysema (breakdown of lung tissue), and many types of cancer — including lung, throat, stomach, and bladder cancer. People who smoke also have an increased risk of infections like bronchitis and pneumonia.

Besides these long-term problems, tobacco and other chemicals can affect the body quickly. They increase heart rate and raise blood pressure, which can harm athletic performance. They also irritate the throat, cause bad breath, and damage the airways, causing the well-known "smoker's cough."

Finally, many studies show that young smokers are more likely to experiment with marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or other drugs.

The Attraction for Kids

Kids might be drawn to smoking and chewing tobacco for any number of reasons — to look cool, act older, lose weight, seem tough, or feel independent.

But parents can combat those draws and keep kids from trying — and getting addicted to — smoking and chewing tobacco. Establish a good foundation of communication with your kids early on to make it easier to work through tricky issues like tobacco use.

Prevention Tips

To help prevent your kids from smoking and using chewing tobacco, keep these guidelines in mind:

  • Talk about it in a way that doesn't make kids fear punishment or judgment.
  • It's important to keep talking to kids over the years about the dangers of tobacco use. Even the youngest child can understand that smoking is bad for the body.
  • Ask what kids find appealing — or unappealing — about smoking. Be a patient listener.
  • Encourage kids to get involved in activities that prohibit smoking, such as sports.
  • Show that you value your kids' opinions and ideas.
  • Discuss ways to respond to peer pressure to smoke. Your child may feel confident simply saying "no." But also offer alternative responses such as "It will make my clothes and breath smell bad" or "I hate the way it makes me look."
  • Emphasize what kids do right rather than wrong. Self-confidence is a child's best protection against peer pressure.
  • Encourage kids to walk away from friends who don't respect their reasons for not smoking.
  • Explain how much smoking governs the daily life of kids who start doing it. How do they afford the cigarettes? How do they have money to pay for other things they want? How does it affect their friendships?
  • Establish firm rules that exclude smoking and chewing tobacco from your house and explain why: Smokers smell bad, look bad, and feel bad, and it's bad for everyone's health.

What to Watch For

If you smell smoke on your child's clothing, try not to overreact. Ask about it first — maybe he or she has been hanging around with friends who smoke or just tried one cigarette. Many kids do try a cigarette at one time or another but don't go on to become regular smokers.

Other signs of tobacco use include:

  • coughing
  • throat irritation
  • hoarseness
  • bad breath
  • decreased athletic performance
  • getting more colds
  • stained teeth and clothing (also signs of chewing tobacco use)
  • shortness of breath

Getting Through to Kids

Sometimes even the best foundation isn't enough to stop kids from experimenting with smoking. It may be tempting to get angry, but it's better to focus on communicating with your child.

Here are some tips that may help:

  • Resist lecturing or turning your advice into a sermon.
  • Find out what appeals to your child about smoking and talk about it honestly.
  • Many times, kids aren't able to appreciate how their current behaviors can affect their future health. So talk about the immediate downsides to smoking: less money to spend on things they like, shortness of breath, bad breath, yellow teeth, and smelly clothes.
  • Stick to the smoking rules you've set up, and don't let a child smoke at home just to keep the peace.
  • If you hear, "I can quit any time I want," ask your child to show you by quitting cold turkey for a week.
  • Try not to nag. Ultimately, quitting is the smoker's decision.
  • Help your son or daughter develop a quitting plan and offer information and resources, and reinforce the decision to quit with praise.
  • Stress the natural rewards that come with quitting: freedom from addiction, improved fitness, better athletic performance, and improved appearance.
  • Encourage a meeting with your doctor, who can be supportive and may have treatment plans.

If You Smoke

Kids are quick to spot any contradiction between what their parents say and what they do. Despite what you might think, most kids say that the adult whom they most want to be like when they grow up is a parent.

If you're a smoker:

  • First, admit that you made a mistake by starting to smoke and that if you had it to do over again, you'd never start.
  • Second, quit. It's not simple and it may take a few attempts and the extra help of a program or support group. But your kids will be encouraged as they see you overcome your addiction to tobacco.
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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2019 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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