They think it makes them look cool or grown up, but teens need to know the truth about the dangers of smoking -- before they ever start!
Your teenager came home reeking of tobacco. Then, a crumpled pack of butts fell out of a pair of jeans and right into the washing machine. Even though this is a moment you have dreaded, try not to lose your cool.
Hopefully, you have done some groundwork by having said in the past -- long and loud -- that you disapprove of smoking because it can ruin a person's health. You will have to trust that the anti-smoking seed you've planted is still buried somewhere in your adolescent's nicotine-addled brain.
Now it's time to sit down and have a serious talk. But don't start out talking about emphysema and lung cancer. Your teenager -- like every other teenager on the planet -- is Invincible, Invulnerable, and Immortal. Those kinds of things happen to old people -- not to the hip and cool.
Instead, talk about how smoking gives people smelly breath, smelly clothes, and stinky hair. Calculate how much money will be spent in a week, in a month, and in a year on cigarettes.
Also talk about the social stigma attached to smoking. Tell your son or daughter about your coworkers who have to stand out in the rain to get their mid-morning nicotine fix -- and how others snicker at them.
Next, gather together some magazine ads for cigarettes that are obviously aimed at the next generation of nicotine addicts. Point out to your teen that he or she is being manipulated -- used! -- by big business and advertising. That tactic usually puts them in high dudgeon!
Usually a kid doesn't start smoking alone. He'll be riding in a car with friends when someone lights up and passes the pack around. Everyone else is smoking, and no teenager wants to feel like some nerdy jerk, so he lights up. Or she'll be with her friends at the mall, gathered at a table in the food court. Her girlfriends will say that, even though they're hungry, they prefer not to eat. The food is too fattening. Instead, they take out their cigarettes and puff away. Naturally, she joins them.
The time comes in almost every smoker's life when he or she decides to quit. Teenaged smokers often come in for a big surprise when they discover that putting tobacco behind them is not as easy as they thought it was going to be. The coach says, "Quit." And guess what? They can't...at least not without a struggle. The reason people continue to smoke even after they have learned that it might kill them is that they are addicted to nicotine.
When a person smokes tobacco, his or her lungs absorb nicotine. From there, the nicotine quickly moves into the bloodstream, where it is circulated throughout the brain. And nicotine hits the brain fast -- in only about eight seconds.
For those who chew tobacco, nicotine enters the bloodstream through the mucous membranes that line the mouth.
Nicotine affects the entire body. It acts directly on the heart to change heart rate and blood pressure. It acts on the nerves that control respiration to change breathing patterns.
But nicotine's most important effect is in the brain, where it can stimulate feelings of pleasure.
The brain has billions of nerve cells that communicate by releasing chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Each neurotransmitter is like a key that fits into its own special lock, called a receptor. When a neurotransmitter finds its receptor, it activates the receptor's nerve cell.
Here's where nicotine gets tricky. Its molecule is shaped just like the neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. Acetylcholine is involved in many body functions, but here let's concentrate on the fact that it causes the release of other neurotransmitters and hormones that affect mood, appetite, memory, and more. When nicotine gets into the brain, it attaches to acetylcholine receptors and mimics the actions of acetylcholine.
Nicotine also activates areas of the brain that produce feelings of pleasure and reward. Recently, scientists discovered that nicotine raises the levels of a neurotransmitter called dopamine -- which is sometimes called the pleasure molecule. Dopamine is the very same neurotransmitter that is involved in addictions to other drugs, such as cocaine and heroin.
Researchers now believe that this change in dopamine may play a key role in all addictions. Perhaps tobacco's connection with dopamine explains why some people find it so darned hard to stop smoking.
Seattle teens responded to a survey that asked them which different feelings or situations trigger the need to smoke. Here are their answers:
A group called the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids has studied the smoking habits of teens across the nation. Here's some of the information they found.
However, there are some bright spots:
Here's the score on what tobacco can do to your teenager in the future.
Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health.