Every day, about 4,000 U.S. teenagers start smoking, then around 1000 become regular smokers. If you're a parent of a young smoker, you can take steps to help the child quit. But first, it helps to understand why teens light up.
Why kids smoke
Much of cigarette advertising focuses on getting teens to smoke. If asked, most teens say tobacco ads don't influence them, yet one study showed they generally smoke the three most advertised brands: Camel, Marlboro and Newport. Studies also found that youth smoking increased by 73 percent during the 10 years following the introduction of the Joe Camel cartoon.
The unconscious mind can be conditioned. Advertising and entertainment figures give the impression cigarettes give pleasure and can make you popular - especially with the opposite sex.
They think smoking will make them look more grown-up.
Smoking reduces stress. Many teens find this an especially appealing factor during the stressful adolescent years. Studies show that nicotine not only reduces stress, but also eases pain and increases mental alertness. Despite these benefits, nicotine's significant drawback as a drug, however, is its extremely addictive quality.
It's easy to become addicted. When asked why they smoke, teens generally respond, "I just like to smoke," or "I can quit anytime I want." In reality, however, studies have shown teens can become addicted to nicotine after smoking as few as three cigarettes. Other studies have shown nicotine addiction is as hard to break as heroin or cocaine addiction, making quitting difficult.
They smoke because their peers do. Teens are greatly influenced by their peer group. The most common situation for trying a cigarette is with a friend who already smokes.
What you can do
Although you may think that your kids only have ears for what they hear in movies and on TV, parents still have the greatest influence on their adolescents' lives, experts say. Here's what to do:
Talk to your kids about the risks of using tobacco. Don't cover up the fact that a relative or family friend died of a tobacco-related illness.
If you smoke, quit if you can. Don't smoke around your kids, and don't leave your cigarettes where they can get to them. Parental smoking is the largest risk factor for kids smoking.
If you have younger children, talk to them as early as age 5 and keep up the talking through high school. Statistics show kids who begin smoking at an early age are more prone to more severe levels of addiction than those who start at an earlier age.
Discuss ways your kids can refuse tobacco from their friends.
Talk about tobacco advertising and how it falsely glamorizes smoking and tobacco use.
How to help them quit
Teens stand the best chance of quitting if they get some help. Studies have found smokers who don't use any smoking-cessation aids have a greater likelihood of lighting up again within a year.
Smokers who use nicotine replacement are much more successful with quitting smoking than those who do not.
People who use a cessation aid and seek counseling have an even higher likelihood of quitting permanently.
Be sure to talk to your doctor before letting a child use an aid. Confirm it's age-appropriate and won't interfere with any medications the child takes.
Support from family and friends also helps. The child should tell people he or she is trying to quit and may be grouchy or edgy for a few days. The child also should ask smokers not to smoke around him or her.
Help your child find positive ways to reduce stress, such as participating in sports or noncompetitive activities such as walking, hiking or yoga.
Finally, be aware that relapses do predictably occur. To prevent discouragement, remind your child that few people successfully quit smoking the first time they try. Rather, most try four or five times before they quit permanently.
The following organizations can provide information, cessation programs and online or telephone support to teens trying to quit smoking. Encourage your teen to contact them directly or do it for them.