Take a Stand Against Smoking
In 2005, 2.4 percent of 12- or 13-year-olds, 9.2 percent of 14- or 15-year-olds and 20.6 percent of 16- or 17-year-olds were current cigarette smokers.
If you find these results from the 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health alarming, then you're not alone. If these trends continue, millions of these people will eventually die from a disease attributed to smoking. Will your preteen be one of them?
Absolutely not, you might say. After all, isn't 10 to 12 years old a bit young to be worried about smoking? Isn't that a "teen issue"?
Hardly. Just ask Marie*, whose 11-year-old was caught smoking in the ladies' room at an after school function. "I thought I would die of embarrassment – that was my first reaction," says the Syracuse, N.Y., mother of two. "Then I had to figure out just how seriously my husband and I were going to handle the whole ordeal. It's the hardest parenting issue I've confronted so far."
Just the Facts, Ma'am
The American Heart Association's scientific position is that cigarette smoking by children and teenagers in the United States is a major public health problem.
How major? According to the National Institutes of Health, the peak years for trying to smoke are between the ages of 11 and 12, with a considerable number starting even sooner.
That's bad news. Further research shows that trying cigarettes this young puts kids at a higher risk for becoming regular smokers and makes it much harder to quit. Even more frightening, a younger onset of smoking means a higher risk of contracting lung cancer or a plethora of other adult health problems.
By now, you're probably asking how you can stop your child from smoking. According to Kate Cohen-Posey, a licensed mental health counselor and marriage and family therapist practicing in Florida, trying to stop your child from smoking might be the worst thing you can do.
"Parents who think they can prevent their children from smoking cigarettes are fooling themselves," she says. "The illusion of having the power to do this can lead to endless lectures on the evils of smoking, which can actually drive children toward the vice."
Instead of waiting to find cigarettes in your child's coat pocket or the smell of smoke in her hair, Cohen-Posey suggests that you start now by finding out what your child knows about the reasons for not smoking. "You may be surprised about how well informed they are," she says. "Ask if they know of other kids who smoke and what they think of it. Be sure not to sound judgmental, because you want to hear their opinion and give them space to think."
If you find yourself beating the lung cancer topic into the ground, you need to beef up on your reasons for not smoking. According to the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, many health consequences are more immediately aware. For example:
- Smoking causes bad breath and makes smokers' homes and clothes stink, and, perhaps fortunately for smokers, it also reduces their sense of smell.
- Beyond smoke- or nicotine-stained teeth, smokers are also more likely to suffer from periodontal disease and to have more serious periodontal disease, including tooth loss.
- Chronic coughing, increased phlegm, emphysema and bronchitis have been well established products of smoking for decades, and smokers are also more susceptible to influenza and more likely to experience severe symptoms when they get the flu.
- Smoking causes mild airway obstruction, reduced lung function and slowed growth of lung function among adolescents.
- Teenage smokers suffer from shortness of breath almost three times more often than teens who don't smoke and produce phlegm more than twice as often as teens who don't smoke. Not surprisingly, smoking also hurts young people's physical fitness in terms of both performance and endurance – even among young people trained in competitive running.
- The resting heart rates of young adult smokers are two to three beats per minute faster than nonsmokers, and studies have shown that early signs of heart disease and stroke can be found in adolescents who smoke.
- Smoking is also associated with hearing loss, vision problems and increased headaches.
- While many smokers believe that smoking relieves stress, it is actually a major cause. Smoking only appears to reduce stress because it lessens the irritability and tension caused by the underlying nicotine addiction.
- High school seniors who are regular smokers and who began smoking by grade nine are more than twice as likely than their nonsmoking peers to report poorer overall health; roughly two and a half times more likely to report cough with phlegm or blood, shortness of breath when not exercising and wheezing or gasping; and three times more likely to have seen a doctor or other health professional for an emotional or psychological complaint.
Too Late to Help
What if your teen or preteen has already tried cigarettes?
"If your children are already smoking, do not allow them to smoke on your property, and insist they match time spent in friends' homes with equal time in your home," Cohen-Posey says. "Some parents take the attitude that if their children are smoking, they may as well smoke where they are safe. This makes smoking way too convenient and does not teach children to set limits."
That's right – it's time to set up a smoke-free zone around your home. If you smoke, quit. If your friends or other family members smoke, inform them of your new policy: No smoking! It might be hard to do, and if you're a current smoker, it might seem impossible, but it's the only way to send a clear message to your child and safeguard his or her health for the future.
What about punishment? If you find your teen or preteen has been smoking on a regular basis, shouldn't the child be firmly disciplined?
"Punishing kids for smoking will probably not work," Cohen-Posey says. "You cannot watch them 24 hours a day, and you will build a credibility gap about what you can control."
Share with them your fears, and offer to get them professional help, but do so with loving guidance. Your reaction should come from a place of concern, not outrage, Cohen-Posey says. "Always express concern for their health rather than anger for their disobedience," she says.
* Last name withheld to protect privacy.