Volume 16 • Issue 40 | March 5 - 11, 2004

Helping teens avoid a dangerous habit

By Dr. Amy Glaser

In my adolescent practice I’m often surprised that parents are much more likely to ask me to discuss safe sex and drug abstinence with their teens than they are cigarettes.

Smoking is a major health hazard for young people. According to the National Youth Tobacco Survey, 28.4% of all US high school kids smoke cigarettes. Eighty percent of all smokers start before 18 years of age.

Smoking is a common rebellion that parents may mistakenly consider a harmless phase. But once teenagers start they will have a very difficult time stopping.

Why do teens smoke? Most say it helps relieve stress when hanging out. Smoking provides an activity to relieve social anxiety and makes them feel older and sexier. These are huge advantages in the socially precarious world of teenagers. Teens also tend to live in the here and now and fail to focus on the addictive potential of smoking or on its long-term effects on their health.

Parents need to be sensitive to the adolescent vulnerability to peer pressure and the lure of social aids. Defend against smoking by helping teens find activities that help them identify themselves: music, film, art, sports, anything that makes them feel good or better yet, “cool.”

Adolescence is a time of experimentation and trying on of identities and thus experimenting with cigarettes is no more a sign of an adolescent’s weakness than it is of parental failure. The goal is not blame or guilt but a positive attitude that rejects cigarettes as useless, costly, and, ultimately, dangerous.

Nicotine is an underestimated drug. It is just as addictive as heroine and cocaine. A hit of nicotine reaches the brain in 7 seconds or twice as fast as heroine after it is injected into the vein. Also, cigarette smoking appears to be connected to other harmful behaviors. According to the Centers for Disease Control, teens who smoke are 3 times more likely than nonsmokers to use alcohol, 8 times more likely to use marijuana and 22 times more likely to use cocaine.

The expected rates of tobacco-related illnesses such as lung cancer and emphysema are higher the younger smokers start. There are 438,000 kids under 18 in New York State who will ultimately die prematurely from smoking related illness.

If your teen starts smoking to be one of the group, probably the best way to get him to stop is to have him join with other teens who can offer support and share the experience of kicking this addiction. The American Lung Association offers a program called NOT (Not on Tobacco) exclusively for teens who want to stop.

My Soho Adolescent practice uses a similar model in an ongoing course to support smoking cessation. The core curriculum focuses on identifying the triggers that make the teen want to smoke and then linking them to healthier behavior. It suggests self rewards as the teenager progresses. It is not an easy process, and those of us around them need to be non-judgmental and supportive of even minor steps.

Smoking is a major health problem all over the world. It is probably counterproductive to taint smoking as the great evil to teenagers, because they see others smoke and may be skeptical of the risks. The approach should be to help them come to their own conclusions about the inherent negatives. The best approach may be to help your child develop an alternative to cigarettes when self-image is a motivating force. This is a critical defense against this addiction when rational arguments are insufficiently convincing.


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