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Get the Facts: How to Talk to Kids About Tobacco and Alcohol

November 2009

By Adelina Espat 

“If everyone is doing it, it can’t be all that bad.”

That’s what most kids would say if you asked them what they really think about smoking or drinking alcohol. The health facts say one thing, but the media is telling them a whole different story.

“The old approach of ‘Just Say No’ isn’t good enough anymore,” says Alexander V. Prokhorov, M.D., Ph.D., professor in the Department of Behavioral Science at M. D. Anderson. 

“Kids today are becoming more and more savvy. They want to know WHY they should say no.”

Prokhorov is M. D. Anderson’s resident expert on kids and smoking. His evidence-based tobacco prevention website for middle and high school kids, Aspire, has proven to influence kids’ smoking behaviors and attitudes.

Prokorov shares insights on how to arm kids with the skills they need to resist the temptation to start using tobacco and alcohol.

What do most kids think about tobacco and alcohol?

Most kids consider themselves unique, unlike anyone else. Many think – “I’m different. Bad things happen to other people, not to me.”

Most people know that bad things happen when you do drugs. Tobacco and alcohol are classified as types of drugs because they are highly addictive. But, if you ask most kids about smoking and drinking alcohol, none would call these items drugs. A kid would say, “My parents aren’t bad, and they smoke and drink alcohol.”

Why should you talk to your kids about tobacco and alcohol?

It's everywhere. People on the Internet, actors in movies and glamorous models in magazines are often shown smoking and drinking. Even every day people on the street can be seen lighting up a cigarette or ordering cocktails with their meals.

Don’t assume. Just because your kids are underage and can’t legally purchase cigarettes or alcohol doesn’t mean they can’t get them. Even if you don’t keep them in your house, kids still can find ways to get their hands on tobacco and alcohol.

Education is the best defense. By informing kids about the dangers, you are telling them what they are not hearing from the media and friends. “You’ve got to train your kids to resist peer pressure,” Prokhorov says. “For many kids, smoking is a ‘gateway’ to alcohol use.”

When is a good time to talk about tobacco and alcohol?

Talk to your kids about alcohol and tobacco as early as possible. Most kids start experimenting in middle school. Don’t wait until they become teens.

Look for a good opportunity to start the conversation. “This is when the media can come in handy,” Prokhorov says.

The next time your family watches a movie and the leading actor lights up or you see a commercial with a woman relaxing on the beach with a bottle of Corona®, start up a conversation about the dangers of smoking or drinking.

What works when talking with kids about tobacco and alcohol?

Here are some tips to remember during your conversation.

  1. Listen – don’t just do all the talking. Ask your kid what he or she thinks about smoking and drinking.
  1. Educate – don’t just give them the stats. Take the time to explain why big tobacco companies want kids to smoke or drink alcohol. Getting kids hooked on tobacco or alcohol increases the likelihood of them becoming long-term, loyal adult customers.

“Work the facts into a meaningful conversation” Prokhorov says. “It can make a bigger impact on your kids.”

  1. Role play – teach your kids how to respond to peer pressure. Practice with your kids what to say when faced with the decision to try smoking or drinking.
  1. Consider consequences – you can’t make every decision for your kids. Teach them how to make wise decisions. AskTalk to Kids them to consider these questions.
  • Can I get hurt?
  • Can I hurt someone else?
  • Is this against the law?
  • Can I go to jail?
  • How will this affect my health?

What’s the best way to influence your child’s behavior?

The best way to teach your kids to be responsible is to not smoke and limit your alcohol use, especially in front of your kids.

Alcohol and kids

More young people in the United States use alcohol than tobacco or illicit drugs, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drinking alcohol reduces their ability to make good decisions and increases their risk to engage in other dangerous behaviors.

It also increases risks of cancers of the mouth, esophagus, pharynx, larynx and liver in both men and women, and of breast cancer in women. The earlier that long-term, heavy alcohol use begins, the greater the cancer risks. Also, using alcohol with tobacco is riskier than using either one alone, because the combination further increases the chances of getting cancers of the mouth, throat and esophagus.

Tobacco and kids

Every day, about 3,600 kids between ages 12 and 17 smoke their first cigarette and almost half of them will become regular smokers, says the American Lung Association. If this trend continues, about 6.4 million current kid smokers will eventually die prematurely from a smoking-related disease.

Tobacco use, particularly cigarette smoking, is the single most preventable cause of death in the United States. Cigarette smoking causes 87% of lung cancer deaths. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in both men and women.

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Help for parents on how to talk to kids about tobacco use and alcohol use. M. D. Anderson's Dr. Prokorov shares insights on how to arm kids with the skills they need to resist the temptations of tobacco use and alcohol use.

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