teenage girl smokingHere’s a startling statistic: each day in America, nearly 4,000 people under the age of 18 smoke their first cigarette.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), that leads to an estimated 400,000 young people who become cigarette smokers each year.

When you live in Austin or Round Rock or other places that have fairly thorough controls on smoking in public places, you can start believing that smoking isn’t that much of a problem anymore. But while smoking rates have declined, each year sees new teenage recruits join the ranks of smokers – and the threat to their future health is very real.

According to the 2012 Surgeon General’s Report, nearly nine out of 10 adult smokers start smoking by the time they are 18. Very few people begin smoking after the age of 25, with 99 percent starting by age 26. And according to the CDC, the number of middle school and high school students who smoked declined between 2000 and 2011.

But even with that decline, 18.1 percent of high school students and 4.3 percent of middle school students smoked in 2011. Nationally, Texas ranks 21st in percent of teens who smoke, at 17.4 percent. (Kentucky leads the list at 24.1 percent.)

A Deadly Habit

While most people would agree that smoking is bad for your health, most people aren’t generally aware of all of the ways that smoking is deadly. According to the CDC, nearly one out of every five deaths each year in the U.S. is linked to the adverse health consequences of smoking. That’s more than 400,000 deaths.

And if no one in the U.S. smoked? If smoking magically disappeared from our lives, the CDC estimates that one out of every three cancer deaths in the U.S. would not happen.

When people think about smoking and cancer risk, they focus on lung cancer. And lung cancer is a formidable problem. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates 159,480 deaths from lung cancer this year – or about 27% of all cancer deaths. Each year, more people die from lung cancer than from colon, breast and prostate cancers combined.

But smoking also increases your risk of a wide range of other cancers, including bladder, cervical, kidney, pancreatic, throat and esophageal cancer. And the ill effects don’t stop there – according to the ACS, smoking increases the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke by two to four times.

But even with all those facts and figures, how do you discourage your children from ever starting? And how do you help them quit if they have already become smokers?

Easier Path to Addiction

Part of what makes it so hard to stop smoking once you’ve started is the addiction to nicotine. The ACS says that anyone who uses tobacco can become addicted to nicotine, and that the younger a person is when they begin  smoking, the more likely they are to become addicted.

There is some evidence that suggests that younger people may be more sensitive to nicotine and that teens may feel dependent on nicotine sooner than adults do. What can make for a more complicated situation is many teenagers’ tendency to believe themselves invincible and not subject to the usual laws of nature. Many teens believe they can stop smoking whenever they want to – but studies show few actually do.

So what’s a parent to do? First, the ACS recommends that you begin talking to your children about the risks of cigarette smoking – and that you start when they are five or six years old. It’s a conversation that needs to continue through high school, since the ACS reports that many kids start using cigarettes by age 11 and many are addicted by age 14.

As most parents learn all too quickly, “because I say so” isn’t really a great way to get your child to do what you want. But if you begin a conversation with your children about tobacco, research has shown that you have a better chance of making a difference. In a 2009 study, the ACS reported that teens whose parents talked to them about the dangers of smoking were about half as likely to smoke as were teens who didn’t have those discussions with their parents.

Your topics of conversation can cover many different aspects of smoking, from an appeal to vanity (“smoking makes your hair and clothes stink and gives you bad breath”) to your own memories of people you cared about who suffered – or died – from smoking-related causes.

All in the Family

Of course, if you yourself smoke, you may wonder how persuasive your arguments against smoking are going to be. According to the ACS, children of parents who smoke are much more likely to smoke themselves, so the best thing you can do for your child is to quit smoking. If you’ve tried before and failed, try again. And if you continue smoking, make certain you keep the house smoke-free and don’t smoke around your children.

If your child already smokes and you want to help him or her quit, avoid threats or ultimatums. Work with your teen to find a smoking cessation program. Once your teen has started a smoking cessation program, support your son or daughter and understand that the road will have rough spots. But when you and your teen come out on the other side as a non-smoker, make sure there is a reward for all the hard work. And remember the biggest reward will be the healthier future that you’ve created for your child by eliminating all of the health risks that are part of smoking.

Kick Butts Day happens every March. November is National Lung Cancer Awareness Month. The Great American Smokeout is on the third Thursday each November.

Sara Rider is a native Austinite who has worked with physicians and hospitals throughout Texas. She frequently writes freelance articles on health topics for newspapers and magazines.

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