I read a startling fact from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the other day. For every person who dies from smoking -- about 1,200 a day -- two youths or young adults become smokers.
Ninety percent of these "replacement" smokers have their first cigarette before they are 18 years old. In fact, every day, 1,000 youth under the age of 18 start smoking on a daily basis.
One of them could be your kid.
After dropping steadily from 1997 to 2003, youth smoking rates are starting to stall. Currently, about 20 percent of high school students smoke, roughly the same as the rate in the adult population -- and five percent of middle school students do. Cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, causing one out of every five deaths. It causes heart disease, lung disease and many different kinds of cancer. We need to stop our youth from smoking.
Just this week, an interesting study was published. Researchers created a virtual convenience store that sold cigarettes behind the counter (which is where most convenience stores keep them). Some of the virtual stores had cigarette ads, some didn't, and some had the cigarettes enclosed in a case while some of them had them out in the open. They had teens "go shopping" in the store. They found that the teens were much less likely to try to buy cigarettes if they were stored in a closed case.
It's a simple thing, but it made a difference. And it's something we could implement. That's what we need: simple, straightforward ways to keep cigarettes out of sight, out of mind and out of reach of our youth.
Here are five suggestions for parents, based on studies like this one:
Know who your kids are hanging out with, and whether they smoke. Kids are far more likely to smoke if their peers do -- we all know how huge peer pressure is in the life of a teen. More than that, they are more likely to do it if it seems "normal"; if their friends are all doing it, well, it's going to seem normal. Don't be fooled into thinking that kids can't get cigarettes if they are underage; kids always find ways to get things they shouldn't, and the Internet has made things even easier.
Don't smoke yourself. Besides the fact that you are putting your health (and the health of everyone around you) at risk, you are making it seem normal to your kid -- and setting a bad example. Kids whose parents smoke are more likely to smoke themselves.
Spend time with your kid. Not only will you get to know who they are hanging out with, you will get to know them better and find out how they are doing. Kids who are struggling academically or socially, and kids who are experimenting with drugs, alcohol or sex, are more likely to smoke. So it's not only important to talk to them about cigarettes and other unhealthy habits, it's important to be part of their lives and support them. As much as they might try to convince us otherwise, teens really do need their parents.
Be aware of the media messages your child is getting about cigarettes. Kids who are exposed to ads for cigarettes (which, of course, make smoking look glamorous and cool) and see smoking in movies, are more likely to smoke. Talk to your kid about the ads and movies they watch. Help them be aware of how the messages affect and manipulate them; that's the first step toward helping them resist those messages. And whenever you can, speak out against cigarette advertising and cigarette smoking in movies.
Help keep cigarettes expensive -- and otherwise unappealing. Here's another startling fact: Six out of every seven tobacco marketing dollars (and they spend billions) is used to pay for price cuts through coupons, sales and giveaways. These guys are smart; they know that the more affordable they are, the more likely people are to buy them. So support every initiative to add taxes and other charges to cigarettes to jack the price up. The nasty pictures on the cigarette packages also make kids less likely to buy them -- support those too.
Our job as parents is to give our children the best future possible. Let's not let cigarettes steal that future from them.
To learn more about youth and smoking and what we can do, check out the Surgeon General's Report on Preventing Tobacco Use in Youth and Young Adults.