In Your Corner: Teen smoking persists, despite decline

Is teen smoking on the rise? From its peak levels in the 1990s, teenage smoking has declined steadily. Today, about 13 percent of teenagers smoke at least once a month.

According to the American Lung Association, each year about 4,000 teens under the age of 18 smoke their first cigarette. And approximately 1,000 of them will become regular smokers.

About 80 percent of adult smokers start smoking as teenagers. The earlier that our youth begin using tobacco, the more likely they will continue using into adulthood. If they begin smoking at an early age, they are more likely to develop severe levels of nicotine addiction than those who start at a later age.

Of teens who have smoked at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetime, most report that they would like to quit, but are unable to do so. This means that a teen who smokes occasionally can experience symptoms of nicotine withdrawal. You can be addicted at the point of taking that very first drag of cigarette.

Dr. Joseph R. DiFranza, a family health and community medicine specialist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, writes, “It only takes a day for the brain to remodel itself in response to one dose of nicotine. About one-quarter of young people experience a sensation of relaxation the first time they inhale from a cigarette, and this sensation predicts continued smoking.”

Tobacco so addicting because nicotine acts as a stimulant. When the body’s tolerance level increases, you need to use more nicotine to maintain a certain level of the physiological effect. For example when you first begin to smoke, one cigarette can produce a “nicotine high” for several hours. Then, as you continue your habit, you notice that the effect from a single cigarette only lasts for one hour, so you need to smoke another sooner to continue feeling the effect.

When the body becomes used to the presence of nicotine, it then requires the use of this chemical to help the body to function normally. This level of dependence is referred to as an addiction.

Tobacco use has also been associated with alcohol and illicit drug use. The American Lung Association states that teens between the age of 12 and 17 who reported cigarette use in the past 30 days were three times more likely than non-smokers to use alcohol, eight times more likely to smoke marijuana, and 22 times more likely to use cocaine.

Peers, siblings and friends are powerful influences. The most common situation for first trying a cigarette is with a friend who already smokes. Since cigarette smoking can become a lifelong habit, the Mayo Clinic lists some helpful hints for parents to help teens stay smoke-free

• Understand the attraction. Sometimes teen smoking is a form of rebellion or a way to fit in with a particular group of friends. Some teens light up in an attempt to lose weight or to feel better about themselves. Others smoke to feel cool or independent. To know what you’re dealing with, ask your teen how he or she feels about smoking. Ask which of your teen’s friends smoke. Applaud your teen’s good choices, and talk about the consequences of bad choices.

• Say no to teen smoking. You may feel as if your teen doesn’t hear a word you say, but say it anyway. Tell your teen that smoking isn’t allowed. Your disapproval may have more impact than you think. In one study, teens who thought their parents would disapprove of them smoking were less than half as likely to smoke as those who thought their parents wouldn’t care.

• Set a good example. Teen smoking is more common among teens whose parents smoke. If you don’t smoke, keep it up. If you do smoke, quit — now. Explain how unhappy you are with your smoking and how difficult it is to quit.

• Appeal to your teen’s vanity. Smoking isn’t glamorous. Remind your teen that smoking is a dirty, smelly habit. Smoking gives you bad breath. Smoking makes your clothes and hair smell, and it turns your teeth yellow. Smoking can leave you with a chronic cough and less energy for sports and other activities you enjoy.

• Do the math. Smoking is expensive. Help your teen calculate the weekly, monthly or yearly cost of a pack-a-day smoking habit. You might compare the cost of smoking with electronic gadgets, clothes or other teen essentials.

• Expect peer pressure. Friends who smoke can be convincing, but you can give your teen the tools he or she needs to refuse cigarettes. Rehearse how to handle tough social situations. It might be as simple as, “No thanks, I don’t smoke.” The more your teen practices this basic refusal, the more likely he or she will say no at the moment of truth.

• Take addiction seriously. Most teens believe they can quit smoking anytime they want.

• Predict the future. Teens tend to assume that bad things only happen to other people. But the long-term consequences of smoking — such as cancer, heart attack and stroke — may be all too real when your teen becomes an adult. Use loved ones, friends or neighbors who’ve been ill as real-life examples.

• Think beyond cigarettes. Smokeless tobacco, clove cigarettes (kreteks) and candy-flavored cigarettes (bidis) are sometimes mistaken as less harmful or addictive than traditional cigarettes. Hookah smoking — smoking tobacco through a water pipe — is another alternative sometimes touted as safe. Don’t let your teen be fooled. Like traditional cigarettes, these products are addictive and can cause cancer and other health problems. Many deliver higher concentrations of nicotine, carbon monoxide and tar than do traditional cigarettes.

• Get involved. Take an active stance against teen smoking. Participate in local and school-sponsored anti-smoking campaigns. Support bans on smoking in public places.

If your teen has already started smoking, be supportive. Avoid making threats and ultimatums. Find out the reasons for him/her smoking; then discuss ways to help your teen to stop. Stopping teen smoking in its tracks is the best thing your teen can do for better health.

• Tram Vuong Meadows is the Therapeutic Foster Home Program Therapist for Hale ‘Opio Kaua’i. She can be reached at, or Hale ‘Opio Kaua’i Inc., 2959 Umi St., Lihu’e, HI 96766


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