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Preventing Your Teen from Picking Up the Smoking Habit

You may be wondering how to approach your teenager about not smoking. Some kids avoid cigarettes like the plague. Some have been on a crusade since childhood to get their parents — you! — to quit smoking. However, adolescence is the time of all kinds of new experiences. Many kids pick up a cigarette out of curiosity, because of peer pressure, or because they've been told not to smoke and they want to rebel.

The best way to prevent your teen from picking up the habit is not to smoke yourself — to set a good example.

Scare tactics, a form of "tough love," work for some teens. Scare tactics that have convinced many teens to shun smoking include seeing people with advanced pulmonary disease and seeing anatomical specimens of cancerous lungs. Granted, you may be challenged to find appropriate visual specimens, but if you search the Internet or call your county medical society, you're likely to find more than you bargained for! Departments of health may be happy to arrange school visits by experts who can tactfully discuss the dismal futures of those who keep smoking. The American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association also have a great deal of information that's accurate, up-to-date, and sobering.

Other teens relate better to a nonjudgmental approach. You might point out that

  • Curiosity and wanting to try new things are normal for teens.
  • Many people experiment with tobacco and other substances at some point in their lives.
  • Many people have learned the truth about smoking the hard way — by getting sick or seeing someone else develop a smoking-related illness.
  • Peer pressure is difficult to face, but being your own person is far cooler than following the crowd and doing something that harms your health, like smoking. Smoking is not cool.
  • Most of the celebrities and other role models whom people look up to take extra-good care of themselves.
  • The future always comes. Living only for the moment comes with a high price. Perhaps your teen can come up with a number of examples where thinking about and planning for tomorrow has already paid off big, such as saving money for something she really wanted or studying for an important exam.

To show your kids that you aren't naive, a self-righteous health nut, or a zealot, be real in your conversations with them. Although they may not act like they do, they want to know about your worries regarding tobacco.

Sit down and talk to your kids about smoking. You may even want to tell them about your own experience with tobacco. You can tell them about others who have tried to quit and struggled. You can explain how addiction works and describe some of the medical consequences of prolonged smoking. Why would anyone want to smoke when they can work out or do other things to make themselves look and feel better?

Asking questions is important, too. Ask your teenager:

  • Have you ever tried cigarettes?
  • Have you ever tried drinking?
  • Do your friends or other people you know smoke?
  • Does anyone you know drink or get high?
  • What do you think about smoking? Do you think it's cool?
  • Why are some people against cigarettes?

Questions about drinking and getting high are especially relevant because most teens who use alcohol and drugs also smoke. Substantial evidence shows that cigarettes are the gateway drug to alcohol, marijuana, and other mind-altering drugs. If your teen consistently denies that he and his friends smoke or drink, extend the conversation a little further. Why hasn't he ever tried a cigarette? Isn't he curious about what it's like? The idea is to get past denial and lip service to health and good habits.

Another key area to explore is self-esteem. One big reason that teens smoke is to pump up their self-esteem and self-confidence. How do your kids feel about themselves? Are they confident, are they assertive, and can they laugh at themselves in a healthy way? Do they have areas of accomplishment that help them feel good about themselves? Do they have many friends? To the extent that teenagers feel shaky about themselves and feel that they need to take extra measures to feel powerful, strong, and effective, they will be swayed by their friends who smoke and by advertising that sells cigarettes as passports to being cool.

Up to two-thirds of high schoolers have tried smoking.

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