Doctor having heart object with no smoking sticker

On the third Thursday of every November, smokers around the nation come together to take part in the American Cancer Society’s Great American Smokeout. This event challenges smokers to quit using tobacco products and provides them with resources to stay away. Tobacco use is the single largest preventable cause of disease and premature death in the world, which is why the Great American Smokeout remains an important event.

Tobacco is hard to quit, so it is crucial to start talking to your kids now to prevent them from using tobacco products in the future. Finding the right time to begin the conversation may be difficult, but there are many things parents can do to help teach the dangers of smoking to children. 

Start the Conversation Early

It’s never too early to start talking about tobacco with your kids. It is recommended to first mention tobacco use around age 5 or 6 and continue the dialogue throughout their high school years. This can be beneficial because many kids start using tobacco products by the age of 11, and even worse, many become addicted by the age of 14. By starting an open dialogue early and often, you can make a big impact on the decisions they make later in life.

Use the Facts

Many kids start smoking because it seems like the cool thing to do, and they aren’t aware of the harmful effects that come along with tobacco use. It’s up to parents to point out the negative health effects to children, which include bad breath, yellow teeth, smelly clothes, coughing, and decreased athletic performance, along with life-threatening illnesses. 

It is no secret that smoking has serious long-term risks such as cancer, but it is important to relay this message to your children. It is estimated that smoking causes 32% of all cancer deaths in the U.S., including 73% of lung cancer deaths in men and 76% of lung cancer deaths in women. If you know someone who has been affected with a tobacco-related illness, you should mention this to your child to give them a real example. 

Vaping

The latest smoking trend is being used across the age spectrum—by kids, teens, and young adults. Vaping is marketed as a safe alternative to smoking, yet there is no evidence that vaping, or e-cigarettes, is any safer than smoking cigarettes, and may, in fact be just as dangerous. 

The liquid used in vaping is not mere water. The ingredients in the liquid, which the e-cigarette device turns into vapor, can contain nicotine, heavy metals, and cancer-causing chemicals. Nicotine, a highly addictive substance, is contained in both regular cigarettes and e-cigarettes. Researchers worry that an addiction to nicotine through the use of vaping, can easily translate later to the same addiction being satiated by cigarettes. 

The MD Anderson Center’s website lists the following risks:

  • Nicotine is addictive. In fact, it’s one of the most addictive substances available. An addiction to nicotine can lead e-cigarette users, especially kids, to escalate to regular cigarettes. Jason Robinson, Ph.D., said, “The fear is that these young people who would never have tried cigarettes are now getting dependent on nicotine at the most impressionable time.” 
  • Nicotine is harmful. This is particularly true for young, developing brains. Nicotine use can stunt an adolescent’s ability to learn and affect their behavior. It lowers their ability to resist addiction, leading to more nicotine use. Nicotine also worsens conditions like depression and anxiety.
  • The vapor may be harmful. If you have asthma, e-cigarette aerosol can irritate your throat and lungs.
  • The liquids and devices can be dangerous. E-cigarettes have been known to explode and the fluid is poisonous if it comes into contact with eyes or skin, or if you accidentally or deliberately drink it.  

Dr. Robinson says the reasons for avoiding vaping and e-cigarettes are compelling. “If you’re not already dependent on nicotine, why take the risk of becoming addicted and damaging your health?” he says. “If you are dependent on nicotine, you are much better off using safe cessation tools that are proven to be effective to curb your cravings and get off tobacco products.”

A larger problem is that e-cigarettes haven’t been around long enough for researchers to perform long-term studies on vaping’s negative effects. Researchers do know that e-cigarette aerosol contains toxic chemicals like those found in glue and paint. What’s less clear is if the amounts are high enough to cause diseases like cancer. Experts say it could take 20 years to know the long-term health effects of vaping.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), “E-cigarettes’ biggest threat to public health may be this: The increasing popularity of vaping may ‘re-normalize’ smoking, which has declined for years. Reversing the hard-won gains in the global effort to curb smoking would be catastrophic. Smoking is still the leading preventable cause of death and is responsible for 480,000 American lives lost each year.” 

The AHA also says that “Tobacco companies want to hook a new generation on nicotine and the allure of smoking,” and they list the following statistics:

  • In 2014 alone, tobacco companies spent more than $125 million on aggressive marketing. In that same year, almost half of US teens ages 12-17 and more than 80 percent of young adults ages 18-21 were exposed to magazine ads for e-cigs.
  • Vaping is now the most common form of tobacco use by kids and teens. In 2018, vaping by high school students in the U.S. doubled from the previous year.
  • Many students say they’ve tried e-cigarettes in part because of the flavors in the liquids.

Tobacco companies, who have a business model based on customer addiction, were a bit slow out of the gate on vaping, but have made up for lost time. 

In 2018, the tobacco company Altria, parent company to Phillip Morris and maker of Marlboro cigarettes, spent $12.8 billion to purchase a 35% share of the vaping company, Juul, which raised the value of Juul to $38 billion—larger than Ford Motor Company, Delta Air Lines or Target. 

Set Household Rules

To help your child understand the danger of vaping and of nicotine, make it clear that there will be consequences if they are found smoking or using tobacco products. Taking away privileges, including using their electronics or going to friends’ houses, can be a way to show them how serious of an issue this is.

While it’s important to have rules, when your child asks about tobacco, the most important thing to keep in mind is to be open and honest about the topic. You are the greatest influence in your child’s life, so what your child learns from you can point them in the right direction to permanently avoid smoking.

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