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Protecting Your Children From Tobacco Use

Helping Your Kids Stay Tobacco-Free

As the new school year approaches, parents and caregivers start thinking about preparing their children for the upcoming year. For parents of middle schoolers and teens, how to keep kids from using tobacco products might not seem as serious as other issues. In fact, some parents may feel that smoking is a “rite of passage” and that kids who start will outgrow the behavior as they get older. However, once teens start using tobacco, they can quickly become addicted, and that addiction can lead to a lifetime of serious health problems. The best way for parents to protect their children from tobacco-related health problems (including asthma, heart disease, cancer, and lung damage) is to prevent tobacco use altogether.

Tobacco Products Are Designed for Addiction

The design and contents of tobacco products make them extremely addictive. Products currently on the market include cigarettes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco (snuff, chewing tobacco, and dissolvable products). Today’s tobacco products deliver more nicotine and deliver it quicker than ever before. Nicotine is the highly addictive drug in tobacco that keeps people using it, even when they want to quit. Like heroin and cocaine, nicotine changes the way the brain works—creating feelings of pleasure or satisfaction—and causing users to crave repeated doses of nicotine. Youth are especially sensitive to nicotine and can feel dependent earlier than adults. Because of their addiction, about three out of four teen smokers end up smoking into adulthood, even if they intend to quit after a few years.

Many tobacco products are flavored to make them more attractive to new users. While flavored cigarettes are now prohibited, tobacco companies still put fruit and candy flavors in many of their cigarette-sized cigars and in a variety of smokeless products. All of these products can cause serious health problems and lead to nicotine addiction and future smoking. And tobacco companies are still using techniques to make cigarettes taste less harsh—especially brands that most young people use when they start smoking.

Photo: Students waiting to board school busThe 2012 Surgeon General’s report (Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults—A Report of the Surgeon General) says that young people sometimes use smokeless tobacco products in places where cigarettes are banned, such as schools. Snus (dry snuff in a pouch) and dissolvable smokeless products in particular provide a way for smokers to maintain their addiction to nicotine, even when they can’t smoke. In fact, most young people who use these smokeless products also smoke cigarettes. These products are dangerous because they can introduce kids to nicotine, putting them at risk for nicotine addiction.

The following sections summarize other key messages from the 2012 Surgeon General’s report. Also provided are resources to help prevent youth from using tobacco or being exposed to secondhand smoke as well as helpful quit resources.

Tobacco Products Cause Serious Harm, Even to Young People

Most people know that tobacco use can lead to disease and death in long-term, older smokers, but many are surprised to learn how early the negative impacts of tobacco use can occur. It’s important that parents know how early smoking can lead to nicotine addiction, early heart disease, and lung damage.

  • Addiction to tobacco can happen at any age, but the younger they start using tobacco, the more likely youth will become addicted and the stronger their addiction will be.
  • Most young smokers already show signs of cardiovascular damage. For example, the large blood vessel that feeds oxygen to the body’s major organs—the abdominal aorta—shows thickening of the walls through which blood passes to the rest of the body and already can contain fatty streaks in smokers as young as 15 or 16 years of age.
  • Early smoking can lead to permanent lung damage. In addition to reducing lung function, smoking slows down lung growth. Because lungs continue growing and developing until young men and women reach their early 20s, youth who smoke may never develop full lung size or capacity. Such damage is permanent and increases the risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) later in life.

Why Do Youth Use Tobacco?

The reasons young people begin to use tobacco include:

  • Tobacco industry marketing. Tobacco companies spend more than a million dollars an hour, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to market their deadly products. Even though the tobacco industry is no longer allowed to target children with advertising and promotions, youth are regularly exposed to images suggesting that tobacco use is cool, adult, and appealing. This marketing, including coupons and other promotions that make cigarettes more affordable, directly contributes to the number of young people who smoke.
  • Social influences. Adolescents are more likely to try tobacco if they see tobacco use as a normal behavior because their friends or family members use tobacco.
  • Physical influences. Nicotine is just as addictive as heroin and cocaine. Because teens are sensitive to nicotine, they can feel dependent on tobacco sooner than adults.
  • Environmental influences. If teens and young adults are exposed to images that portray smokers as cool, attractive, rebellious, fun loving, risk taking, or other characteristics they admire, they may want to smoke, too. Such images are often found in advertising displays at convenience stores and other outlets that sell tobacco, as well as in movies and on TV.

Who Is at Greatest Risk?

Young people are more likely to use tobacco if they:

  • Have access to smoking areas and tobacco products—especially low-cost or free tobacco
  • Have friends or siblings who use tobacco
  • Watch movies that have smoking in them
  • Are not doing well in school or have friends who are not doing well in school
  • Are not engaged in school or religious activities
  • Use other substances, such as alcohol or marijuana

What Your Community Can Do to Help Prevent Youth Tobacco Use

Following are some state and national policies proven to work best:

  • Make tobacco products less affordable
  • Restrict tobacco marketing
  • Ban smoking in public places—such as workplaces, schools, day care centers, hospitals, restaurants, hotels, and parks

How You Can Help Your Children Stay Tobacco-Free

Photo: Three teenage students smilingWith so many high-risk activities available in today’s culture, parenting adolescents can sometimes feel overwhelming. However, the risks associated with smoking—and with other tobacco use that often leads to smoking—are just as overwhelming. Despite decades of health warnings, 46 million Americans still smoke cigarettes today. More than 70% of them want to quit, but nicotine addiction is so powerful, quitting is very difficult and many smokers just give up trying. Nearly half a million die from smoking every year—an average of 13 years earlier than their peers who don’t smoke—and for every smoker who dies, 20 more live with at least one serious chronic disease caused by smoking. More than 3.6 million middle school and high school students smoke cigarettes; one out of three teen smokers will ultimately die from a tobacco-related disease. That is not a future parents want for their children. The key is prevention, because nearly 90% of smokers start smoking before they’re 18 and almost no one starts after age 25. To help keep your children from starting to use tobacco, take these important steps:

  • Tell your children emphatically and often how dangerous smoking is—and how addictive all tobacco products are.
  • Make your home and your car tobacco-free for everyone—friends and guests as well as family members.
  • Tell your children you expect them to be tobacco-free.
  • Ask your child’s doctor to discuss health issues caused by tobacco use—including nicotine addiction.
  • Encourage your children to be involved in activities at school, church, or in the community.
  • Don’t let your children see movies, TV programming, or video games that show tobacco use.
  • Find out where your community stands on policies known to reduce tobacco use by youth, such as school-based tobacco bans, smoke-free policies, and higher prices on tobacco products.
  • Set a good example by not using tobacco yourself.

More Information

For more information about how to prevent youth from tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke, consult the following:

For more information on the health consequences of tobacco use and exposure to tobacco smoke, consult the following:

Support to Quit
While it’s always better to prevent people from beginning to use tobacco at all, free resources are available to assist tobacco users in their quitting efforts.

  • Page last reviewed: August 6, 2012
  • Page last updated: August 6, 2012
  • Content source:
    • Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Digital Media Branch, Division of Public Affairs
    • Page maintained by: Office of the Associate Director for Communication, Digital Media Branch, Division of Public Affairs
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