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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Tobacco Use

Sadly, 6,000 young people will try their first cigarette today, and half of these children will turn smoking into a daily habit. Moreover, this habit can begin at very young ages, with almost one of six third through fifth graders reportedly having tried tobacco in elementary school. Many people who smoke look back and wish they had never started. In fact, three of five adult smokers (more than half) were hooked on tobacco before age 14. These startling facts highlight how important it is for parents to talk with their children about tobacco use early on, even during their elementary school years.

Why Do Children Use Tobacco?

Children will imitate what they see around them. If their parents, siblings or friends smoke, children are more likely to smoke. Ads and the media are also powerful influences. For example, children may try tobacco because they see television stars smoking, sports figures chewing tobacco, and/or popular cartoon characters advertising cigarettes. Why do many children who try tobacco keep using it? Nicotine is extremely habit-forming. One puff on a cigarette can excite the brain within 10 seconds, quickly activating the same pathways that control feelings of pleasure. A person can become physically hooked on nicotine after smoking as few as 100 cigarettes and emotionally hooked after even a few cigarettes. Genetic factors also may play a role in influencing how a person reacts to nicotine.

Effects Of Smoking

Smoking damages the lungs and can cause problems throughout the body. Children (and adults, for that matter) who smoke often have more colds (upper respiratory infections), sinus infections and lung infections (pneumonia), as well as frequent cough and worsening asthma symptoms. People who smoke often look older than they actually are. Smoking eventually leads to more serious lung disease, lung cancer and even death. Tobacco also causes narrowing of blood vessels, which may result in a heart attack.

Other Types Of Tobacco

Besides traditional cigarettes, tobacco also is smoked in cigars, pipes and small brown hand-rolled cigarettes (called bidis), as well as chewed, so-called smokeless tobacco or snuff. Tobacco in these forms also causes serious health problems. Cigar and pipe tobacco increase the risk of heart disease and lung disease (for example, emphysema) and cancers of the lung, mouth or throat. Bidis contain more than three times the amount of carbon monoxide and nicotine as in regular cigarettes, which increases the likelihood of heart or lung diseases, as well as cancers of the mouth, throat, lung, stomach or liver. Smokeless tobacco can cause mouth cancer and leukoplakia, a white rash in the mouth that over time can turn into mouth cancer.

Talking With Kids About Tobacco

It is important for all parents to talk with their children about tobacco, starting at an early age. Here are some suggestions for getting across to your children the messages about tobacco:
  • Explain that smoking is extremely dangerous and very unhealthy. It definitely causes difficulty breathing and makes it harder to run and play sports.
  • Point out that tobacco smoke smells bad; stains teeth, fingernails and skin: and even makes clothes, hair and breath smell bad, too.
  • When you see cigarette ads, talk with your child about what the ads are actually trying to sell: maturity, beauty, sexual attraction, wealth and "coolness." Make it clear that cigarette smoking cannot provide anybody with these things.
  • Point out to your child that most young people don't smoke or chew tobacco. Children see many cigarette ads and references to smoking in the media and may think that smoking is more common than it truly is.
  • Role play with your child to prepare him for dealing with pressure from friends to try tobacco. Pretend to be a classmate or friend offering your child a cigarette and let your child practice different responses.

Please talk with your child today about the dangers of tobacco use. Most adult smokers start using tobacco before they finish high school. If your child makes it to graduation without trying a cigarette, chances are good that he never will.

Last updated March 11, 2008




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