Teens and Smoking

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!

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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.

Smoking Stinks

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.

  • Plot how to say no. One important step in quitting is finding a way for your teenager to remain friends with smokers without actually being a smoker. Discuss this topic with your teen, so that together you can come up with an acceptable way to decline the offer of a cigarette or a cigarette break.
  • Find better things to do. Also encourage your teen to become involved in the school band, a sports team, or any group activity at all where smoking is discouraged.
  • Set that all-important example. If you or your spouse smoke cigarettes, your situation is more difficult. You can handle it one of two ways: Declare your house a smoke-free zone and do your smoking away from home, or you and your teen can give up smoking together.
  • Fight the urge. Remind your teen that the urge to light up lasts less than a minute -- so suggest that he or she ride out the urge and eliminate at least that one cigarette.
  • Seek help. If all your efforts fail, haul your teenager to the family doctor. The doctor is well-trained in counseling teens about tobacco and may be able to suggest specific ways to get your teenager to stop smoking.

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:

  • Anger and arguments
  • School pressures
  • Troubles at home
  • Wanting to appear glamorous or grown-up
  • Loneliness
  • Feeling uptight
  • Breaking up
  • Boredom
  • Parties
  • Rewarding yourself
  • Feeling of rebellion
  • Friends or family smoking
  • After eating or drinking alcohol
  • Hunger

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.

  • In Alaska, 36.5 percent of high school kids smoke cigarettes and 23.5 percent chew tobacco.
  • In Colorado, smoking is pervasive, with 33.7 percent smoking.
  • In Kentucky, a tobacco state, the number is 34.1 percent smoking, and an astonishing 39 percent chewing tobacco.
  • In Delaware, the number who smoke is up to 34.5 percent.
  • In Indiana, 37.8 percent of high school kids smoke.
  • In Missouri, 39.8 percent of 12th graders are smoking cigarettes.
  • But West Virginia has the dubious distinction of having the smoking-est students, with 43.3 percent lighting up, and 34.5 percent chewing tobacco!

However, there are some bright spots:

  • In health-conscious California, only 22.2 percent of the high school students smoke, and only about 7.3 percent of the boys chew tobacco.
  • Washington DC has similar numbers, with 22 percent smoking and 2.3 percent of the boys chewing.

Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

Here's the score on what tobacco can do to your teenager in the future.


  • Heart attack
  • Stroke
  • Emphysema
  • Cancer


  • Mouth cancer
  • Pharynx cancer
  • Larynx cancer
  • Esophagus cancer
  • Loss of teeth

Source: National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institutes of Health.

National Institute on Drug Abuse

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