It’s really amazing how far this country has come in its recognition that smoking is bad for you. During the 1950s almost half of American adults were lighting up, today that number is below 20 percent according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The American Lung Association says that 68 percent of adult smokers say that started smoking regularly when they were age18 or younger.
Tobacco use among middle and high school students is gradually going down, but far too many kids are still giving cigarettes, cigars and smokeless tobacco a try.
Kids are attracted to smoking for a lot of reasons. I don’t think anyone of any age thinks cigarettes smell good or finds a brown slimy wad of spit attractive, but kids will overlook the gross factor if they really want to try a cigarette.
So how do you talk to your child about the dangers of smoking without it going in one ear and out the other? What if YOU smoke- how do you tell your child not to smoke?
The number one reason for smoking among kids is peer pressure. Kids want to fit in. So, the first conversation to have when you talk to your child about smoking is how to respond to peer pressure other than just saying no thanks. Other suggestions might be “It makes my clothes and breath smell bad. I don’t like that”, “ Smoking can make you sick and I don’t like being sick”, “ You may want to smoke but I really don’t want to. If you are going to smoke, please don’t do it around me”, and “smoking will make my teeth yellow”. Give your child some optional ways to respond when pressure is applied. Create a plan and even let your child practice responding by role-playing.
Another approach to talking with your child about smoking is to ask them why they think kids start smoking. There are actually a lot of reasons kids (and adults) start smoking. Anxious or worried kids like the calming affect it has on them. A lot of girls think smoking will help them lose weight. Top tier models have been quoted as saying they lose weight with caffeine and cigarettes.
Some kids think that smoking makes them look and feel older, it also gives them a sense of independence. If your child is looking at smoking from that vantage point, you might direct them to the Internet and a program called www.ageme.com. It’s pretty interesting. You can see how smoking, weight gain and sun exposure will affect how you look as you age. It’s not a pretty sight.
And of course, there are the health reasons. If your child plays sports, ask them how hard would it be to play the sport they’re involved in if they couldn’t breathe. Explain how smoking eventually will destroy their lungs but it doesn’t take a lifetime of smoking to start feeling the effects. You become much more susceptible to colds and bronchitis. Mucus builds up in your lungs and you begin coughing more. And if you want to become a singer (say on… American Idol or The Voice) smoking will keep you from hitting the high and low notes as well as making it tougher to hold those sustained notes the judges all love.
And then there is cancer. Kids don’t normally relate to cancer very well. It seems like an old persons disease to them. If you’ve had anyone in your family or a friend die of lung cancer or emphysema and they smoked, you might talk about how much longer they could have lived and been a part of you and your child’s life. How much you miss them.
I think shock sometimes has a place in this discussion. There are photos online of smokers and non-smokers lungs. The difference is shocking. Black tarred lungs are difficult to look at. Lung cancer is difficult to look at – but it’s also a reality check.
Smokeless tobacco. A lot of kids (and adults) think chewing tobacco isn’t as bad as smoking a cigarette. So untrue. It may not cause lung cancer and smell as bad, but it comes with its own set of really bad problems. Once very popular with baseball players, its use has been reduced by players substituting sunflower seeds and gum, although there still seems to be a lot of spitting going on.
There’s plenty of nicotine in chewing tobacco, so it’s just as addictive.
For kids who chew tobacco you might mention that they are very likely to end up with cracked and bleeding lips and gums. Plus, receding gums that can eventually make your teeth fall out as well as high blood pressure. None of the above is a desirable look.
Kids may have heard about lung cancer, but they may be unfamiliar with oral cancer. Several baseball players have died because of oral cancer, Bill Tuttle and Babe Ruth to name a couple.
You can let them know that while they may not get lung cancer from using smokeless tobacco, he or she will most definitely be a candidate for developing oral cancer. Oral cancer can include the lips, tongue, cheeks, mouth and throat.
So, how do you have this conversation with your child if you are a smoker or you chew tobacco? The best thing to do is to quit and to let your child know that you are going to probably have a rough time of it. Let them see how difficult it is and share that they too will have to go through the same kind of suffering if they start smoking and continue.
Talk to your child about how you began smoking – what age you were- and why you wish you never had started. Talk about the times you’ve tried to quit and how hard it was. Discuss addiction and how you’re not in control of smoking, smoking is in control of you. Don’t leave cigarettes or smokeless tobacco around the house. It’s just too tempting.
Talking about your smoking doesn’t encourage your child to smoke, especially if you are honest about how it has impacted your life.
And then there is the economics of smoking. Cigarettes, e-cigarettes and smokeless tobacco are expensive. Depending on what state you live in, a pack of cigarettes can cost around $5.00 to $12.50. If you smoke a pack-or two-or three a week it can add up (imagine a pack or two a day!). Ask you child what else they could be spending their money on instead of cigarettes.
The “Don’t smoke” conversation is multi-layered. Threats and character assassination are not helpful. In fact, that is exactly the kind of approach that can push a child to smoke.
There is no one conversation about smoking that covers everything. It’s a process that has to be creative and delivered on a consistent basis. You have to listen as well as talk. You have to be able to be teen-brained as well as the adult.
While peers may have the strongest impact on pushing your child to smoke, parents still hold the number one position on how their children learn to make important decisions.