Not on my watch: How to make sure your kids never become smokers

By Meera Jain, M.D., internal medicine physician, Providence Medical Group-Northeast, and medical director, Providence Tobacco Cessation and Prevention Program

Tobacco use today is a pediatric epidemic. According to the Surgeon General's 2012 report, Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults, adolescents are especially susceptible to the dangers of smoking and nicotine addiction. Some sobering statistics:

  • Nearly all adults addicted to smoking today started their habit as teenagers.
  • One out of four U.S. high school seniors is a current smoker.
  • Because it is so difficult for young people to break free of nicotine addiction, four out of five young smokers will still be smoking in adulthood.
  • Half of these smokers will die about 13 years earlier than their nonsmoking peers.

But the report also contains one piece of good news that every parent should hang onto:

  • If young people can resist trying even one cigarette by the time they reach 18, there is a strong chance that they will never smoke.

This single statistic is why I urge all parents to adopt the motto: Not on my watch. If you can prevent your kids from experimenting with smoking for as long as they are living under your roof, there is a very strong likelihood that they will never smoke, never become addicted, and never suffer the painful health consequences and shortened lifespan inflicted by tobacco addiction.

How can you do that? Grounding them for 18 years might sound tempting, but would probably just lead to rebellion down the road. The more effective approach is to treat them with respect and trust while you help them build their own inner resolve to remain tobacco free. The following strategies will help.

Don't assume.

No matter how good our kids are, we can't make assumptions that they will never try tobacco. By the end of high school, one in four already has. Young people are especially vulnerable to peer influence, to the sophisticated marketing tactics of tobacco companies, and to the examples set by the adults in their lives and the film and music heroes they look up to. Kids face temptation everywhere, every day. Don't assume that they have the strength to resist it – make sure of it.

Be a positive role model.

Children of smokers are more likely to become smokers themselves. There may be several factors at play here, from the daily example of smoking as the norm, to inhaled secondhand smoke from a parent's cigarette sparking the beginnings of nicotine addiction in a child, to possible inherited tendencies toward nicotine addiction. If you smoke, your kids are the best reasons to quit. If you've tried to quit before, I encourage you to try again. Take advantage of every available tool to help you quit for good. Start this month by participating in the Great American Smokeout. Call 1-800-QUIT-NOW for help – it's a free phone call that connects you with expert advice and resources – and possibly even free nicotine patches – to help you quit.

Have the talk, and keep having it.

Kids know that smoking is bad for their health – they've heard it a million times. What they don't realize is how powerfully addicting it is and how quickly addiction can take hold. Most kids believe that they can try a smoke or two with no repercussions. They need to hear the truth: that cigarettes are no less addictive than meth, heroin and other hard street drugs. That the first cigarette a young person smokes causes changes in the brain that can start addiction. And that a teenager can become addicted after just half a pack of cigarettes or a few days of smoking.

Keep the lines of communication open. Be inquisitive rather than judgmental. Give them the tools to make – and stick to – their own decisions. And let them know that if they make a choice they regret, they shouldn't be afraid to talk to you about it.

Make them mad.

Kids should be furious at big tobacco. No one likes to be manipulated or taken advantage of, but that's exactly what the tobacco companies do to teenagers and young adults. Talk to your kids about the ads you see in magazines: big tobacco spends $1 million every hour – that's $10 billion per year – to attract new smokers. To the tobacco companies, your kids are just seen as potential replacements for the 1,200 U.S. customers who die from smoking-related diseases every single day, and the millions of customers worldwide who die each year. Price cuts, creative promotions, flavored and "natural" cigarettes, chewing tobacco, mini-cigars and hookahs – they're all part of the strategy to lure young people to tobacco. And once they've got you, they've got you. Your kids have every right to be angry. Make sure they refuse to fall prey to big tobacco's manipulation.

Help them hone their own messages.

"What will you say if you're at a party where all the kids are smoking, and someone offers you a cigarette?" Practice these kinds of scenarios with your kids. Get them to anticipate that there will be opportunities to smoke, and make sure they are prepared to confidently say no, not even one cigarette, because: "I respect my body too much to damage it like that," "I respect my brain too much," "I refuse to be conned by big tobacco," "I'm not interested in becoming addicted to something that will kill me." Encourage them to come up with the message that is most meaningful to them. Help them discover that it's cool to be strong and to say something with conviction.

Foster healthy connections.

Kids who have positive, meaningful social connections are less likely to start smoking. Maintain a healthy connection with your children, get to know their friends, and stay plugged into what's going on in their lives. Encourage them to get involved in sports teams, after-school activities, community groups or their place of worship to build positive relationships and to prevent the isolation and negative peer pressure that sometimes drive smoking.

Keep them in school.

People who have a GED education or who don't finish high school are much more likely to smoke than people who complete high school and college. Keeping your kids in school, and encouraging them to continue their educations beyond high school, is another important way to reduce their smoking risk.

Support anti-smoking programs and legislation.

Beyond what you can do for your own children, there are things you can do to reduce smoking risks for all children. We know that for every percentage point that tobacco taxes are increased, there is a corresponding increase in the percentage of the population that quits smoking. Teens, with their limited spending money, are especially sensitive to high prices. You can help prevent kids from even starting to smoke by actively supporting tobacco tax increases. Throw your support behind anti-smoking policies and programs in schools, too – these have been shown to cut into the percentage of kids who smoke.

For more information: