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Recent query: My daughter, who is 16, smokes when she is with her friends though she is not allowed to smoke in our home. She knows smoking is bad for her health but she does it anyway. She tells me not to nag her and be glad she doesn’t do drugs or drink! How can parents control their teenager’s behavior when they are on their own so much and have their own money and drive?

The bad news is that once teens have money in their pockets and are able to drive there’s no way parents can see or stop what they are doing out there.

There are some strategies parents can use to PREVENT their children from starting to smoke. However, because of the billions of dollars spent by tobacco companies to recruit teen smokers it’s hard work.

Sadly, tobacco industry methods work. 90% of smokers initiate the habit before age 18 and 35% of all high school students smoke. Kids still get cigarettes from stores and vending machines or get someone older to buy them.

Once kids start smoking they get “hooked”. Cigarettes contain one of the most addictive substances known, nicotine, which is what makes a smoker want to light up all the time. Lighting up produces the smoke and tars that kill you from cancer, emphysema, and heart disease.

What can parents do to prevent their children from smoking?

o Don’t smoke yourself (adolescents from families who smoke are twice as likely to smoke themselves) and don’t let anybody smoke in your house, including your teens and their friends.

o Help your children RESPECT THEMSELVES and MAKE WISE CHOICES. These lessons have to start very early. It won’t work to first yell these words as your child gets on the bus for middle school.

o Raise children with healthy spirits as well as healthy bodies. A healthy spirit means you feel good about yourself and comfortable about who you are, you feel you belong on this planet, you have hope because the world is a pretty good place, and you know there is a future waiting for you.

o Foster a love of learning. Expect your child to do well in school. Teens that excel in high school rarely smoke.

o Talk to your children. Have family meetings to discuss issues like taking care of your body. Hang out with your kids and listen to them when they want to express an opinion.

o Work to get thoughtful anti-smoking curricula in the schools. These are often led by peers and deal with how to acquire skills to resist media and social influences. Many are effective with smoking rates 15 to 20% lower than in controls.

o Support government initiatives to further curb both the access to and the attractiveness of tobacco products by children and youth.

o Counter tobacco ads that promise sophistication and attractiveness with the gruesome truth: smoking causes bad breath, stained teeth, chronic cough, decreased lung function, and diminished athletic ability. Who wants to be (or go out with) a dragon-breath loser?

What if you’ve done all this and you find out that your teenager is smoking anyway?

This happened to me. I found several open, though nearly-filled, packages of cigarettes in my son’s drawer when I was putting away some clothes. My son admitted he had smoked a cigarette or two but added that if he carried cigarettes in his pocket he was less likely to be urged to take a cigarette or be razzed about not smoking. I took him at his word. Soon he got into running, became very health-conscious, and the packages of cigarettes disappeared.

What if you find out that your teen is smoking?

o Reiterate the rule about NO SMOKING IN THE HOUSE.

o Don’t talk about the health issue. Every child in the US knows that smoking causes cancer but that’s something that happens to you when you’re old and adolescents don’t worry about the distant future.

o Mention that tobacco can ruin your looks and desirability causing yellow teeth and holes in your designer jeans. The majority of teens surveyed do not want to go out with, let alone kiss, a smoker. Smoking does not make you popular. The majority of teens surveyed do NOT think smoking is cool. As a matter of fact they think it makes you look insecure.

Then end the conversation with the following statement: “I don’t approve of smoking. I don’t want you to smoke. I will not permit you to smoke in my house or in my presence. I can’t follow you everywhere and I will not nag you. It’s up to you to decide what kind of teen you want to be: a follower of peers or someone who thinks for yourself. I won’t say another word.”

Keep your promise and don’t talk about it anymore. If your teenager comes to you saying he or she wants to stop but can’t, take the teen to a doctor for advice on the nicotine patch and smoking-cessation programs which do work in motivated teens.

o Challenge the teen to an athletic contest. If you beat the kid jogging or last longer on the stair-machine it’s a strong message.

o Involve the teen with you in volunteer work. This is time with you, time away from peers, and time that gives the teen a grown-up sense of purpose.

o Finally, a wise counsellor once told me, “When your teen is most obnoxious and pushing you away, the teen most needs you”. Demonstrate your affection–keep the hugs coming. And find ways to give your teen some undivided attention, preferably doing adult things together. But you can also ask for a game of Monopoly “–like we used to play when you were little”.