Kids and Smoking: Start the Conversations Early

Each day 3,000 kids start smoking. One third of them will die from their addiction.

Most preschool children today view smoking as an unhealthy, negative behavior. Somewhere around the time of kindergarten, however, this often begins to change. They begin to think of positive aspects of smoking – that it is cool, that it can help you calm down, that it’s grown up, etc. Many kids become quite ambivalent about smoking at this age. Your greatest opportunity to prevent smoking lies between about the ages of 6 and 12.

When my son, Kevin, was a participant in the California State Scholastic Chess Championships. During the lunch break, we grabbed a quick bite to eat. Over lunch, another of my children (who shall remain nameless) picked up a straw, placed it still-wrapped in the mouth and began to pretend to smoke a cigarette – feeling very grown-up. Quickly I checked to make sure no one in the restaurant recognized us (just kidding!). Actually, we used it as an opportunity to talk again about all the people who are killed by cigarettes, and why smoking is not a game.

During this age, children need to hear you reinforce the consequences of smoking often, particularly the short-term consequences. Get your kids talking about what they think about cigarettes. Their ideas will guide your teaching.

Children also need to hear the truth about smoking from their schools. Check to see that your children’s schools have smoking curricula. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have free guidelines for curricula available, outlining what should be covered, how it should be communicated, and when these lessons are most important. School-age children often look up to their teachers a great deal. If the teachers’ lounge smells like smoke, children will notice the smell on their teachers. When kids hear one thing from their teachers and see (or smell) another, the message is badly undermined. If teachers who smoke wish they could quit (and a great many smokers do), it could be helpful to tell the children this, giving them a vivid example of the addictive powers of nicotine.

A teacher could even ask the class to encourage her in a stint at trying to quit – the class could function as a kind of support group. If the teacher succeeded in quitting, the message to kids would be that they can be powerful health-promoters. If the teacher failed, the message to kids would be that cigarettes are indeed terribly addictive. In that case, she could promise to try again in a few months.

Avoid pretend smoking and candy cigarettes. Some of the packages of candy cigarettes available look amazingly like the real thing. If some other industry had their product copied, lawsuits would quickly ensue. But not in this case! The tobacco companies are glad to have kids imagine and model smoking behaviors. Bubble gum is also available in packaging that looks like a tin of smokeless tobacco.

Help your child to notice the marketing campaign that is actively trying to deceive children and adults. If your child sees a tobacco ad full of smiling, active people in a magazine, ask what the tobacco industry is trying to trick you into thinking about cigarettes (that smoking makes you happy and athletic). Ask what the truth is (that smoking discolors the teeth, gives you bad breath, causes cancer in the mouth and throat, and decreases your athletic ability). Kids can really get into this game, and it helps make them wiser.

In addition to emphasizing the health dangers of tobacco, children at this age need to be taught a vital skill – how to say “no.” Throughout the school years, peer opinions and behavior gain increasing sway. Sometimes children will start to smoke if they don’t want to, just because they’re afraid to refuse a friend. Teaching refusal skills to your school-age child is well worth the investment. A great way to do this is to practice. If your child is able to say that cigarettes are harmful, ask “What would you say if your best friend offered you a cigarette?” Let your child try out several answers. Kids who have practiced and who have ready responses will be more free to make their own choices regarding tobacco, sex, alcohol, drugs, and nutrition.

Published on: March 22, 2010
About the Author
Photo of Dr. Alan Greene
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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