What Are the Risks of Smoking?

The health risks of smoking, vaping, and using chewing tobacco are serious. Among them:

  • Tobacco cigarettes are the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States, and can cause many diseases.
  • E-cigarettes, vape pens, and hookahs (water pipes) are filled with tobacco, nicotine, and other harmful chemicals. Health experts report serious lung damage in people who vape, including some deaths.
  • Chewing tobacco (smokeless or spit tobacco) can lead to nicotine addiction, cancer, gum disease, and heart disease.

But kids and teens continue to smoke and use tobacco products. Many young people pick up these habits every year. In fact, 90% of adult smokers started when they were kids. So it's important for parents to learn all they can to help kids steer clear.

What Problems Can Smoking and Tobacco Cause?

One reason that smoking and chewing tobacco are major health hazards is because they contain the chemical nicotine. Many e-cigarettes also contain 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. Once a person starts to smoke, it's hard to stop.

Smoking and tobacco use can harm every body system and lead to long-term health problems such as:

  • heart disease
  • lung disease
  • stroke
  • many types of cancer — including lung, throat, stomach, and bladder cancer

People who smoke also can get:

Smoking is linked to diabetes, joint problems (arthritis), and skin problems (like psoriasis). For women, smoking can make it harder to become pregnant and can affect a baby's health. It can also make women's bones weaker and and easier to break.

Tobacco and other chemicals also can affect the body quickly. Their effects on the heart and lungs make it harder to do well in sports. They also irritate the throat, cause bad breath, and damage the airways, leading to the well-known "smoker's cough."

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

Why Do Some Kids Smoke?

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

But parents can fight those draws and keep kids from trying these things — and getting addicted to them. Talk openly about tobacco use and vaping with your kids early on to make it easier to work through these tricky issues.

How Can Parents Talk to Kids?

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

  • Talk about it in a way that doesn't make kids fear punishment or judgment.
  • Keep talking to kids over the years about the dangers of tobacco use and vaping. Even the youngest child can understand that these habits are 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 don't allow 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 just saying "no." But offer other responses too, such as "It will make my clothes and breath smell bad" or "I hate the way it makes me look."
  • Focus on 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 takes over 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?
  • Set firm rules that exclude smoking, vaping, 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 if My Child Smokes?

Even when kids are well aware of the health risks, some still try smoking. If that happens, try not to get angry. It's better to focus on communicating with your child.

These tips can help:

  • Find out what appeals to your child about smoking and talk about it honestly.
  • Often, kids can't appreciate how their current behaviors can affect their future health. So talk about the problems that happen sooner: 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, and don't let your child smoke at home.
  • If you hear, "I can quit any time I want," ask your child to show you by quitting cold turkey for a week.
  • Resist lecturing and try not to nag. In the end, quitting is the smoker's decision.
  • When your child is ready, help develop a quitting plan. Praise their decision to quit.
  • Focus on the rewards that come with quitting: freedom from addiction, improved fitness, better sports performance, a better appearance.
  • Encourage a meeting with your doctor, who can be supportive and may have treatment plans.

When Parents Smoke

Kids are quick to spot gaps between what their parents say and what they do. And 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. Say 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 tries 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. You can find information and support online at:
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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2020 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.

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