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It's just one cigarette: Talking to teens about smoking

Parents can greatly influence teens’ decision about whether to smoke, even when parents smoke. It may not seem like teens are listening, but parents’ words stay with them.

What to say to your teen

Studies show that tobacco use is greater among teens whose parents did not convey the clear message that they disapprove of smoking. Or did not talk to them about the effects of smoking. When parents talk with their teens about the problems of tobacco use, those teens are less likely to use tobacco.

The most effective conversations between parents and their teen focus on issues that are important and relevant to the teen. Following are some suggestions to help guide your conversations.

Young people often think tobacco use will not affect them until they are older. This is why it's important to emphasize the immediate consequences to your teen. Those consequences include:

  • Physical effects. Using tobacco causes bad breath, yellow teeth, smelly clothes and hair, stained fingers, phlegm, and a gross sounding cough.
  • Impact on performance. Smoking hinders performance and endurance among young people. This is true even for those trained for sports competition. Young smokers have resting heart rates that are two to three beats per minute faster than nonsmokers, which is not healthy.
  • Exposure to chemicals. Cigarette smoke contains ammonia, which is used to clean toilets. Cigarette smoke also contains cyanide, which is used to kill rats), as well as formaldehyde, which is used to preserve dead bodies.
  • Nicotine addiction. Teens get addicted to nicotine just like adults, so when they try to quit, they will go through the withdrawal symptoms, too. This addiction also means that anyone who starts smoking during adolescence is more likely to continue smoking as an adult.

It's also helpful to remind your teen that most of their peers don’t smoke. Smoking is about the least popular thing to do if you want to hang out with other teenagers. Most teens consider smoking or chewing tobacco a foul, unattractive habit.

Teens may think that smoking makes them sexy, or will help them lose weight. These are myths. Dispel them. Make sure your teen has the facts about tobacco use.

Long-term health risks

Most teens have heard about tobacco’s health risks. But they're usually unconcerned because the consequences seem so far into the future. Younger teens especially may be unable to understand or evaluate the long-term hazards such as lung cancer. They often feel that's something only older people should worry about.

Despite this, it's still worth noting long-term health risks when talking to teens about smoking. Something might sink in.

Consider the facts

Here are some facts to consider as you talk to your teen about cigarette smoking:

  • In the United States, cigarette smoking is the cause of about 1 in 5 deaths a year. Tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death in the United States. It results in more casualties than AIDS, alcohol, car accidents, murders, suicides, and illegal drugs combined.
  • Nicotine addiction from any type of tobacco is the most common form of drug addiction and one of the most difficult to overcome.
  • Nicotine use can become a “gateway” to drugs such as cocaine or marijuana.
  • A person who has not started smoking as a teenager is unlikely to ever smoke.
  • Young people’s addiction to nicotine is not limited to smoking. Many youth also use smokeless tobaccos such as snuff and chewing tobacco. Smokeless tobacco can cause oral cancer and gum disease.
  • Tobacco companies distribute free merchandise that appeals to young people to tempt them to try cigarettes. The free products include things like baseball caps and sunglasses.
  • The best way to prevent tobacco use is for teens to spend time with friends who are against smoking. Peer pressure to avoid tobacco use can be more powerful than any other form of prevention.
  • Teens are looking for ways to appear more adult and sophisticated. If they think using tobacco fits this image, teens may be more likely to smoke or chew tobacco. Teenagers who are rebellious often believe they should be able to do whatever adults do.

Setting family rules

If you don’t want your teen to use tobacco, don’t imply they have a choice. Society does not let teens decide that they don’t want to attend school or drive a vehicle without a license. You should present tobacco use to your teen in the same way — it’s not an option.

Establish a clear and firm no-tobacco-use policy for your teen, and explain consequences if the rules are broken. Parents who tolerate or approve of underage tobacco use are more likely to have children who smoke.

Studies show that if you model the behavior you want your teen to adopt about smoking, your teen will be less likely to smoke. Likewise, if you share your opinion that smoking is bad, you will reduce the chances your teen will smoke.

Related resources

Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids — This Campaign is a leading force in the fight to reduce tobacco use and its deadly toll in the United States and around the world.

Tobacco/NicotineNational Institute on Drug Abuse — Statistics, trends, videos, and publications about tobacco use.

Downloadable ResourcesPartnership for Drug-Free Kids™ — Guides, how-tos, and quizzes for parents to use with their teens.

Tobacco Prevention and ControlMinnesota Department of Health — Learn what Minnesota is doing to create a state where all people are free from the harms of tobacco.

Teens Health: E-Cigarettes — The Nemours Foundation — What they are and the dangers of “vaping.”

Ellie McCann, Extension educator in family resiliency. Jodi Dworkin, Extension specialist and associate professor in family social science

Reviewed in 2017

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