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Putting off that First Puff: What Children Know and Don't Know about Smoking

Updated on February 19, 2012

Many of the dangers of smoking are old news, but often parents fail to realize how dangerous experimenting is for children. When a teenager or tween tries a first cigarette, she has certainly already heard about the major dangers of adult smoking. What she may not know is the special risks she has as a young experimenter.

Unfortunately, kids’ desire to look sophisticated hasn’t changed. Pitching tobacco as a sophisticated or glamorous act continues in movies, models, and magazines. The New England Journal of Medicine reported that tobacco advertising’s reach to young people remained over 80% even after the major tobacco settlement of 1998.

What Children Don't Know

Schools and public health campaigns cast a wide net teaching the dangers of smoking. Blunt campaigns bring home the long-term message – smoking kills. Children may dismiss the big familiar fears of cancer, emphysema or addiction as risks only to the guy down the street who’s smoked for twenty years. They view their own playing around as temporary and harmless.

Childhood smoking, even if it doesn’t lead to addiction with the commiserate diseases of extensive exposure, carries grave risks for young lungs. Children who smoke suffer permanent lower lung function, retarded lung growth, and increased mucus production.

Regrettably, children also overestimate their own ability to resist addiction. The Centers for Disease Control reported that of 9th through 12th graders who began smoking daily, more than 60% had tried to quit, but fewer than 15% had been successful.The adult smoker population attests to this -- ninety percent of adult smokers tried their first cigarette by the age of eighteen.

A further consequence of youth smoking is that as adults, they tend to smoke more. As teens, tucking cigarettes out of sight of parents or authorities is a practiced art. Smokers who began as children consume more cigarettes than those who started later in life.

Perhaps the greatest danger of youth smoking is the gateway effect it has to illicit drug use. Department of Health and Human Services reports have repeatedly shown that current smokers are significantly more likely to also experiment with binge drinking and illicit drugs.

What Can Parents Do?

The University of Michigan Health System offers the following suggestions for concerned parents:

  • Be a good model.If you smoke, quit.Children from homes where one or both parents smoke are twice as likely to take up the habit
  • If you smoke and are having trouble quitting, make the children feel like they’re part of your quitting program. They’re participation will likely help dissuade them from smoking
  • Use tobacco industry marketing in movies and magazines as a jumping off point to discuss how marketing messages work to influence new smokers.

The health risks of smoking have been general knowledge for more than two generations.The formative health dangers to the young are still less known. Parents can step into their children’s prevention program by staying away from cigarettes themselves and raising awareness of tobacco marketing.A child who has avoided that first cigarette through childhood and the teen years has an excellent chance of never becoming a smoker.


1. King III, Charles, and Michael Siegel. “The Master Settlement Agreement with the Tabacco Industry and Cigarette Advertising in Magazines.” New England Journal of Medicine 345 No. 7 (2001) 504-511

2. Finkelstein, Jacob N., and Carl J. Johnston. “Enhanced Sensitivity of the Postnatal Lung to Environmental Insults and Oxidant Stress.” Pediatrics 113.4 (2004): 1092-1096.

3. United States. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. “Preventing Tobacco Use Among Young People: A Report of the Surgeon General.” 43.RR-4, 11 March 1994.

4. United States. Department of Health and Human Services. Public Health Service. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2007.. June 6, 2008; 57(SS-04).

5. Ibid.


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