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Teen Smoking Concerns, Signs, Risks and Facts for Parents

The U.S. Surgeon General finds cigarette, cigar and other tobacco use still high among adolescents. Discover the trends and indications your kid might be smoking.

Tobacco use remains widespread among high school students, according to a report by the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General. This data, released in 2012, is as significant as the government's first survey on teenage smoking since 1994.

It found that almost one in four high school seniors has smoked cigarettes in the past 30 days, compared with one in five adults. While that's a decline from the '94 teen smoking rate, the rate of decline has health experts worried.

"The simple fact is that we cannot end the tobacco epidemic without focusing our efforts on young people," Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary at U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, said in a statement. "Nearly 100 percent of adults who smoke every day started smoking when they were 26 or younger, so prevention is the key."

Concerns about tobacco

Early use of tobacco is linked to a variety of health problems later in life. More than 400,000 Americans per year are estimated to die as a result of cigarette smoking, and most smokers begin their habit in adolescence.

There is a strong relationship between active smoking and asthma in susceptible children and adolescents. There's evidence that it causes impaired lung growth during childhood and adolescence.

Trends for teens

Smokeless tobacco is on the rise, the report also noted, particularly among white teen males. About one in 10 high school senior guys is a smokeless tobacco user, and for about one in five, it's cigars. Cigarettes and chewing tobacco are illegal for those under 18 in most U.S. states. Data also shows cigar smoking may be increasing among black high school females.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nicotine, through the use of tobacco, is one of the most heavily used addictive drugs and the leading preventable cause of disease, disability and death in the United States. The surgeon general's report underscored the addictive nature of nicotine, particularly among teens.

The likelihood of addiction increases when younger individuals start using tobacco. Among adults who become daily smokers, 80 percent said their first use of cigarettes was before age 18, and 99 percent admitted first use by age 26.

Teens begin smoking for a variety of reasons. Images from movies and other social influences are among them, the surgeon general notes. Its report adds there is ample evidence that young people believe that cigarette smoking will help them control their body weight – though there's no evidence that young smokers weigh less or lose weight because of smoking.

Is your teen at risk?

Young people are more likely to use tobacco, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention office on smoking and tobacco use, if they:

  • Have access to smoking areas and tobacco products.
  • Have friends, brothers or sisters 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 to do

Talking to your kids – whether it's preventative, or if you've already discovered they've been smoking – is key, says pediatrician-led website KidsHealth. Be mindful of your approach, though: "Resist lecturing or turning your advice into a sermon," it notes.

Here are a few other tips KidsHealth offers when it comes to prevention and addressing a problem with your teen:

  • Ask them what seems appealing about smoking – and "be a patient listener." That'll fuel honest conversation, whatever your situation. Resist nagging!
  • Talk about ways to handle peer pressure. Beyond "No," for instance, kids could say, "I hate the way it makes me look."
  • Set firm house rules against tobacco use, with your reasons, (i.e., "Smokers smell bad, look bad and feel bad, and it's bad for everyone's health.")
  • Talk frankly about the long-term health effects (see earlier in this article).
  • Help your child figure out a plan to quit; offer him/her information, resources and plenty of positive reinforcement.
  • And, if your kids are young, remember to discuss smoking with them from a young age ("even the youngest child can understand that smoking is bad for the body," KidsHealth notes).

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