Almost one in four high school seniors smoke. It’s a statistic that could have big consequences.
Smoking and tobacco use is responsible for one-third of all cancer deaths and most lung cancer deaths.
Knowing the risk factors that make a teen likely to try smoking can help you prevent them from starting, says Alexander Prokhorov, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Tobacco Outreach Education Program at MD Anderson.
Signs teens are likely to start smoking
- Their friends smoke. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a survey of Memphis 11 and 12 year olds found that 30% of survey participants got cigarettes from their friends. A similar survey conducted in California found that 82% of adolescents who had tried smoking got cigarettes from friends.
- Their academic performance has changed. Students who do well in school are less likely to smoke than their peers. And any change in academic performance or behavior could be a sign that something more is going on. If your student is struggling, it could lead to self-esteem problems, another factor that makes teens more likely to try smoking.
- They struggle with weight. There’s a common misconception that smoking cigarettes can help control weight, making it tempting for image-conscious adolescents, Prokhorov says. “Kids need to understand that tobacco is not the best way to lose weight,” he says. In fact, smoking can make it more difficult for kids to exercise, making it harder to lose weight in a healthy way.
- They’re not comfortable telling someone no. Low self-esteem in general can lead to smoking. “Kids are looking for a friend and many of them find them in cigarettes,” Prokorhov says. The challenge lies in showing teens that smoking will hurt them more than help them in the long run. In addition, teens who suffer from depression, anxiety and stress are more likely to start smoking.
What can parents do?
Even if your teen exhibits several or all of the risk factors, tobacco use is preventable. Use these tips to help keep him or her tobacco free.
- Be on the lookout for signs of these risk factors. This will let you know if you need to keep an extra eye out for tobacco use and prompt you to spend more time discussing the dangers of smoking.
- Quit smoking or using tobacco. Research shows that children who have a parent who smokes are more likely to smoke and to be heavier smokers at a young age. Quitting, or trying to quit despite difficulties, sends a strong anti-smoking message.
- Know the trends. The good news is fewer and fewer teens are smoking cigarettes. The bad news is they’re turning to new products like e-cigarettes and hookahs. None of them are safe. Knowing what’s on the market can help you better inform your kids.
- Talk to your kids. Make sure your children know the dangers of tobacco use. While this may be easier said than done, Prokhorov says it’s vital to establish honest and supportive communication.
“Don’t nag or yell. It can be counterproductive,” Prokhorov says. “It’s a lot better to show them that you’re their parent, but you’re also their friend, and then explain the reasons why you don’t want them to smoke.”
Prokhorov recommends getting creative when it comes to talking to teens about tobacco. “It has to be an emotional message,” he says.
Remind them that it can affect others by discussing the dangers of secondhand smoke and how it can affect anyone from siblings to pets.If they’ve lost a loved one due to a tobacco-related illness, try talking to them about that. If your child plays sports, remind them that tobacco will make success more difficult.
“Kids relate to these things,” Prokhorov says.
Request an appointment at MD Anderson's Lyda Hill Cancer Prevention Center online or call 877-632-6789.