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Lift the smokescreen: talk to your kids about tobacco

Lift the smokescreen: talk to your kids about tobacco

Lift the smokescreen: talk to your kids about tobaccoThere are many challenges to raising a child. One of the most complex issues may be talking to your kids about smoking. Peers, music videos and movies all have an influence on how kids think about tobacco. But, as a parent, you have a great amount of influence on your children, too – especially in their younger years. By starting the conversation early, and making your children feel comfortable talking with you about smoking or any other harmful activity, you can help guide their decisions so they can make the healthiest choice.

Fortunately, the majority of kids and teens do not smoke, even if they have admitted trying it. According to the 2006 Youth Smoking Survey in Canada, 2% of youth in grades five to nine and 11% of those in grades 10 to 12 reported that they were current smokers. Yet, most children have not tried cigarettes at all − not even a puff. In grades five to nine, 82% of youth have never tried it and by grades 10 to 12, 52% of youth report that they still haven’t tried it at all. Still, a slightly higher number (55%) have tried some form of tobacco by this age.

These statistics show that fewer kids are smoking and so there’s less social pressure on them to start. But because more than half of children will still try tobacco, it’s well worth opening the conversation. Read on for more advice from experts Dr. Steve Manske, Principal Investigator with the national Youth Smoking Survey, and Diane Buhler, an activist with Parents Action on Drugs.

Start the conversation early
Some studies show, Buhler says, that even at age three or four, your kids can start learning about the health risks of cigarettes and other forms of tobacco. ”As soon as a child sees someone smoking or finds a cigarette butt on the ground – especially if your child is at that curious age − you’ll probably have to say, ’don’t pick that up!’ it’s a good discussion opportunity,” she says. “Don’t just tell them it is garbage. Explain how cigarettes are harmful to the body – whether they are on the ground or not.”

Buhler says kids may also try pretending to smoke, using a straw or candy stick. In that situation, she advises parents try saying something like, “I see you’re pretending to smoke. Glad you’re pretending because it’s really not healthy for you.”

Dr. Manske says this conversation will be a lot easier if you already have an open line of communication with your child. “You can’t just one day decide to talk to them about smoking if you haven’t been talking to them about anything before,” he says. “It’s important to have a solid relationship that already includes talking about school, friends, bullies and other things that are important to your kids.”

Offer alternatives
Many children act as if they are invincible (until they fall, of course). And this natural tendency means they may be likely to try things that seem dangerous or risky. Kids who engage in a lot of risk-taking behaviour are more likely to give in to smoking and other substances such as alcohol and drugs. “In those cases, the parent can re-direct their child’s need to take risks into sports or leadership opportunities. A parent has to actively think about challenging a child like that in a way that will turn them in a positive direction,” Buhler says. Also, staying physically active puts a lot of demand on the heart and lungs and kids who try smoking will quickly see how much harder it makes running, jumping – and doing any kind of activity.

Keep the conversation going
Whenever you bring up the topic of cigarettes, use consistent messages as your child is growing up. Until they reach grade five, most kids who’ve received guidance against smoking will probably hate it outright, says Dr. Manske, but as they get older, outside influences could change their minds. “Kids see very much in black and white when they are younger – they either love or hate something, usually because of what their parents have told them. But as they reach pre-teen ages of 10, 11 and 12, they start listening to their peers and messages from the media more than their parents, and may start seeing the positive aspects about something they used to think was just outright ‘bad.’”

Dr. Manske’s research shows that kids most commonly smoke their first entire cigarette between the ages of 12 to 14. He says that this is a good time to ask them some questions about their interest in smoking and remind them of the negative aspects. “Ask your child questions like: ‘If a friend offered you a puff, would you take it?’” If your child doesn’t say, “absolutely not” then he or she may be vulnerable to starting, he adds.  

Some youth may also be more susceptible than others, Buhler says, especially if they see tobacco as a way to deal with their feelings of depression, anxiety and stress.

With older kids, Dr. Manske says, it may also help to talk about how tobacco companies try to manipulate people into smoking. He suggests that you may want to start the conversation with something along the lines of, “Did you know that because cigarettes kill, the companies that make these products are always trying to get newer and younger smokers so they can continue to make money.” That way, your kids will be less likely to think that you are trying to control them.

What you can do if you’re a smoker
It is a well-known fact that parents who smoke are more likely to have children who smoke. The 2006 Youth Smoking Survey found that 25% of kids in grades five to eight report smoking when they also have parents who smoke. Just 9% of grades five to eight students report smoking if their parents don’t smoke. Both Manske and Buhler agree that the best thing parents can do to discourage kids from smoking is to go smoke-free themselves. Other approaches that can also be helpful. “If you talk to kids about your struggle to quit and how addictive it is, how much it controls you, that may help them.” Buhler adds, “It can be helpful to say, ‘I’m sorry I started, I wish I didn’t, it’s hard to change. My job is to keep smoke away from you and reinforce your decision not to start – because it’s not a good thing to do to your body.’”

Dr. Manske also says that parents can make it more difficult for their kids to smoke by imposing smoke-free zones. “We just finished an analysis of a study which found that children are less likely to be susceptible to smoking when parents have rules against smoking in their homes or vehicles. These kids are less likely to ever become smokers, independent of whether parents or siblings smoke.”

What your kids can do
Another great option, he says, are programs that allow kids to advocate for a smoke-free world. “Today, many teens and youth are getting involved with advocating against tobacco – by working to create stop-smoking campaigns and by letting friends, family and even the government, know their concerns and criticisms of the tobacco industry.”

Parents know that despite their best efforts, once kids reach a certain age they are more likely to do what they want than what their parents tell them to. That’s why Dr. Manske says legislation, such as high taxes, placing cigarettes out of sight in corner stores and restricting advertising can help stop kids from picking up smoking. 

For more information on talking to your kids about tobacco, look at the brochures offered at 

Read Health Canada’s guide to keeping your kids smoke-free.

Find out the latest statistics on youth smoking by reading the Youth Smoking Survey results.

Posted: January 1, 2009

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