The Right Way to Talk to Kids About Smoking

Nearly nine out of 10 adult smokers started before age 18. Their lifelong health will be impacted by a poor decision made as a child. How can parents help kids steer clear of smoking? Don’t preach or give a speech. Have honest, ongoing conversations about the dangers of tobacco and e-cigarettes.

An estimated 4.6 million middle and high school students used tobacco products in 2014, according to National Youth Tobacco Surveys by the Centers for Disease Control and Food and Drug Administration. Of every three young smokers, only one will quit, and one of those remaining smokers will die from tobacco-related causes. E-cigarettes were the most commonly used product among middle (3.9 percent) and high school (13.4 percent) students, tripling in use among high school students in one year to 2 million in 2014.

Kids might think vaping (the term used for smoking e-cigarettes) is harmless fun, but it puts them on a path to nicotine addiction. Adolescent brains are still forming. Nicotine is a dangerous, addictive drug. E-cigarettes may seem safer than burning or chewing tobacco; however, because they are yet to be regulated by the government, we don’t know exactly what’s in them or what the effects are.

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Here’s the lowdown on how and when to start talking to kids about smoking, as well as some strategies that tend to backfire.

Start early and organically.

As soon as your kids notice smoking, begin talking to them about the negative health effects and why it’s a poor decision. Lay the groundwork while they still listen to everything you say. By the time they’re 5 or 6 years old, kids can digest simple health messages. Make it clear that smoking is unhealthy and that you strongly disapprove of it. Tell them about friends or family members who have died from tobacco-related causes.

Conduct a continuous dialogue.

“Don’t sit down and say, ‘Here’s the cigarette talk and be done with it,” says Dave Dobbins, chief operating officer of Truth Initiative (formerly American Legacy Foundation), the largest nonprofit public health organization in the nation devoted specifically to tobacco control. “Monitor behavior and reinforce the message over time.” Have an ongoing conversation, listen and be a sounding board. Don’t just lecture.

Share additional health information as they get older.

Smoking increases the risks for lung cancer, heart disease and stroke. Smoking cigarettes remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, accounting for about 1 out of 5 deaths each year. Smokers suffer shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, headaches, tooth loss, bad breath and finger discoloration. Not only is it horrible for your health, but smoking can also reduce the ability to play sports and participate in other fun activities.

Be a healthy example.

If you smoke, quit. Children of parents who smoke are significantly more likely to smoke. “The ultimate thing you can do to ensure your kids engage in healthy behaviors is to engage in them yourself,” says Dobbins.

If you did or do smoke, be honest. Open up about why you started and admit your mistakes. Talk about how hard it is to quit. Don’t smoke in front of your children, in the house or in the car. Make sure cigarettes are always out of reach.

Talk about addiction.

When children are 10 to 12 years old, introduce the concept of addiction. Like heroin and cocaine, nicotine is addictive. It changes the way your brain works and makes you crave more nicotine. Tell them it’s not simple to stop.

“Kids are much more vulnerable,” says Dr. Erika Westling of the Oregon Research Institute, who has studied adolescents and e-cigarette use. “They can show symptoms of addiction and withdrawal from as little as one cigarette per month.”

Tell tweens not to get tricked by big tobacco.

Bill Blatt, director of Tobacco Programs for the American Lung Association, says that the tobacco industry spends billions of marketing dollars every year, much of which is aimed at kids (despite what companies say publicly). “A huge amount of effort when into manipulating you to pick up a Marlboro,” Blatt says.

Telling kids this tends to make them mad. Challenge them to prove they are smarter than that.

“Every time someone is telling you smoking is cool, there’s a dude in a suit trying to make money,” Dobbins says.

Discuss the dangers of liquid nicotine.

“E-cigarettes are very easy for kids to try,” Westling says. “They’re easy to order online and attractively-flavored. Kids can have one or two puffs in a school stairwell with no odor.”

With names like Unicorn Vomit and Kaptain Krunch, e-juices sound like fun, but have actually accounted for numerous calls to Poison Control Centers, and even caused the death of a small child. Just half a teaspoon of liquid nicotine can be lethal if ingested. Accidentally spilling onto the skin can cause convulsions, increased heart rate, vomiting and decreased blood pressure.

What’s more, e-liquid ingredients have been unregulated. Ask your kids if they want to put unknown substances into their bodies. Even though celebrities like Jenny McCarthy glamorize e-cigarettes (in ads reminiscent of 1950s tobacco campaigns), smoking is still not cool. It opens kids up to a life of nicotine addiction.

“Young kids get hooked on nicotine, naturally gravitate towards cigarettes, then have a hard time quitting,” Westling says.

Have your children visit Still Blowing Smoke. This California Department of Public Health anti-vaping campaign encourages kids to wake up and stop thinking e-cigarettes produce “harmless water vapor.”

Try not to yell or threaten.

If you catch your child smoking or become aware of their tobacco use, don’t just scream at them. The surest way to shut down conversations with kids is to threaten or deliver ultimatums. Talk about why they’re smoking. Do they think it will help them fit in, get more attention, or look like an adult? Help determine positive ways to reach their goals.

“Smoking does not make you look like an adult,” Blatt says. “You look like a teen with a cigarette. If you want to look mature, act mature.”

Offer help quitting.

Be aware that your child could already be addicted. It may take more than just willpower to quit. Provide assistance and connect them to resources that can help. The Illinois Tobacco Quit Line is a great place to start (, 1-866-QUIT-YES).

Encourage kids to end smoking for good.

truth is the nation’s longest-running and most successful youth smoking prevention campaign. “This revolutionary campaign is effective because it helps kids internalize the health affects message and bolsters inoculation,” Dobbins says. Imagine a world where smoking was ended for good. Let’s finish it (#FinishIt).

truth tour (Photo courtesy of truth.)

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