When you picture your child's future, you may see her as a doctor, a veterinarian, an artist, a singer, or a tennis player. Chances are you don't see her as a smoker. And why would you? This is the kid who holds her breath when she walks past someone with a cigarette and wonders loudly why anyone would do something so gross. Still, it's a sad fact that between now and her teen years, this repulsion could give way to curiosity. Every day, about 4,100 kids between age 12 and 17 try cigarettes for the first time; there are even some 10-year-olds doing it. More than a third of these children are hooked by the time they graduate from high school.
Although it might seem premature to talk about the dangers of cigarettes with your second- or third-grader, experts say your actions and words today can make a huge impact on your child's future decisions. "Parents have two things working in their favor at this age: Children generally learn early on that smoking is repulsive, and they still look to their parents as role models and voices of authority," explains Danny McGoldrick, vice president of research for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit organization that advocates for public policies to protect children from tobacco use. This means that the more you drive home the health dangers of cigarettes, the more she'll pay attention to your messages -- even if you're a smoker. Put these tips in play to keep your antismoker on the right path.
Paint an ugly picture.
Point out that smokers are more likely to get sick and die young from many types of cancer, heart disease, lung problems, and other ailments than people who don't light up. However, it's also the more immediate effects -- brown teeth, gum disease, and stinky hair, clothing, and breath -- that have an impact on kids. "Keep sending consistent messages about how poisonous cigarettes are," says McGoldrick. "They make you sick, make you ugly, and make you die sooner." Kids will also pay attention to the negative effects that smoking has on sports performance, and even playtime. Tell your kids that smoking will slow down how fast they can run or how long they can play without getting out of breath. Plus, you should mention that smoking makes you more prone to skin problems, like acne.
Stress the dangers of cigarettes, and how fast people get addicted.
Because cigarettes are heavily marketed and widely available, grade-schoolers often don't grasp that they contain nicotine, a drug that is dangerous and addictive (even more so think that something so unsafe would never be sold. In their eyes, teenagers smoke to be cool. What they need to hear is that these older kids actually have a drug addiction that makes it incredibly hard for them to quit, even if they want to. Experts say a teenager's still-developing brain may be especially sensitive to nicotine's effects on dopamine, a neurotransmitter that induces pleasurable feelings.
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 parents.com/quit-smoking.
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 scenesmoking.org, 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.