This article originally appeared in the June 18, 2009 edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The health risks of tobacco are well known, yet the rates of smoking and using chewing tobacco continue to grow. Many young people pick up these habits every year. In fact, 90% of all adult smokers started when they were kids. Each day, more than 4,400 kids become regular smokers.
So it is important to make sure young people understand the dangers of tobacco use. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, and can cause cancer, heart disease, and lung disease. Chewing tobacco (smokeless or spit tobacco) can lead to nicotine addiction, oral cancer, gum disease, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks.
Giving children information about the risks of smoking and chewing tobacco, and establishing clear rules and your reasons for them, can help protect them from these unhealthy habits.
Kids might be drawn to smoking and chewing tobacco for any number of reasons — to look cool, act older, lose weight, win cool merchandise, seem tough, or feel independent. Establish a good foundation of communication with your children early on to make it easier to work through these tricky issues. Some guidelines to keep in mind:
- Discuss sensitive topics in a way that doesn't make kids fear punishment or judgment.
- Emphasize what kids do right rather than wrong. Self-confidence is a child's best protection against peer pressure.
- Encourage kids to get involved in activities that prohibit smoking, such as sports.
- Show that you value your child’s opinions and ideas.
- Read, watch TV, and go to the movies with your kids. Compare media images with what happens in reality.
- Discuss ways to respond to peer pressure. Your child may feel confident simply saying "no." But also offer alternative responses such as "It will make my clothes and breath smell bad" or "I hate the way it makes me look."
- Encourage kids to walk away from friends who don't respect their reasons for not smoking.
- Explain how much smoking governs the daily life of kids who start doing it. How do they afford the cigarettes? How do they have money to pay for other things they want? How does it affect their friendships?
- Establish firm rules that exclude smoking and chewing tobacco from your house and explain why: Smokers smell bad, look bad, and feel bad, and it's bad for everyone's health.
Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at www.cardinalglennon.com.