Smoke Signals: Talking to Your Child About Smoking

More Tips to Prevent Kids from Smoking

Cheryl Healton, Dr.P.H., the president and chief executive officer of Legacy, a national non-profit antitobacco organization, knows firsthand how tempting and addictive cigarettes can be. She was just 9 years old when she first took a drag of her mom's cigarette, and by 15 she was lighting up every day. "No one expects taking a few puffs to lead to a lifetime of addiction and health problems, but that's what can happen -- and quickly," says Dr. Healton, who has now been smoke-free for nearly 20 years.

Of course, nicotine isn't the only toxic substance your kid should know about. At least 250 of the more than 7,000 chemicals in cigarettes are harmful to our health, and at least 69 can cause cancer. Explain that the tar in cigarettes harms the lungs and hinders breathing immediately. And long-term, it contains chemicals that cause cancer. You can also mention that smokers inhale carbon monoxide, the same nasty stuff that spews from a car's exhaust pipe. This substance depletes the body's supply of oxygen, which forces the heart to work harder. The result: high blood pressure.

Be a role model.

If you don't smoke, your child's already getting one of the best antitobacco messages you can give. Kids whose parents smoke are about twice as likely to light up; but that doesn't mean all hope is lost if you do. "If you're a smoker, discuss your hope that your child will learn from your mistake and not repeat it," suggests Susanne Tanski, M.D., chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' tobacco-prevention group. Explain that you weren't really aware of the health risks of smoking when you first started, and if you could turn back the clock you'd never put a cigarette to your lips. It's also important that you don't smoke in your home, car, or anywhere else around your child (and ban other smokers too). This may mean hosting activities at your house if a friend's parents or others refuse to refrain from smoking in their home when your child visits. Besides lowering your child's risk of secondhand smoke-induced asthma, ear infections, colds, and other ailments, this also conveys that cigarette smoke is too toxic to be around. Next, let him in on your current or past attempts to stop. "Your child needs to hear about your struggles so he understands that while you absolutely want to quit, cigarettes aren't easy to give up," explains Dr. Tanski. For more advice on kicking the habit, check out

Be mindful of your child's media exposure.

Cigarettes remain an all-too-common prop in many of today's G, PG, and PG-13 movies. Last year, tobacco was featured almost 600 times in youth-rated motion pictures. Even characters in the animated movie Rango lit up. "We have managed to get tobacco out of most public spaces and workplaces in many parts of the country," says McGoldrick. "But it's unfortunate that it's still so prevalent in the media." Promotions like these more than double the odds that children will buy into tobacco's "cool factor" and try it out, according to a study that was published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. At, you can see which movies feature characters that light up, as well as download sample letters that you can send to the Motion Picture Association of America and movie studios asking that all youth-rated movies be smoke-free.

Make it harder for your child to say "yes" to temptation.

Kids who are busy in extracurricular activities like sports, band, martial arts, and dance are less likely to smoke because they want to stay healthy so they can excel in their event (plus, they have less free time on their hands). Spending time together as a family -- eating meals, going on outings, playing games, and attending your kids' activities -- is another great defense. "The tobacco industry spends close to $13 billion a year to promote its product, and much of that marketing directly reaches and influences children," says McGoldrick. "Parents can counter that by setting a good example, listening and answering a child's questions, stressing the terrible health risks, and keeping the entire family's focus on enjoying long, healthy, smoke-free lives."

Originally published in the November 2011 issue of Parents magazine.

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