Many people may be under the impression that smoking is so passé. After all, you can’t light up anymore in buildings and restaurants, leaving smokers to puff away on street corners. But it turns out that many of those who are doing so are teens and young adults. Approximately 22 per cent of high school students in Quebec smoke and, on average, young people have their first puff at the age 12 and a half.
Natalie Osborne was one of those who started smoking at a young age. She was 14 when she became hooked on cigarettes. Now a mother of three boys, she wonders if they will follow in her path. Although she quit at 21, she knows first hand the allure smoking can have. “Smoking made me feel more sophisticated, grown up,” she explains. “I got to hang out with all the cool kids at lunchtime.”
Osborne talks to her children about smoking but doesn’t outright forbid it as she knows this tactic won’t work. “I can’t force my son not to smoke because he’s not home all the time,” she says. “He’ll be at school and he’ll mooch off someone or they’ll get someone to buy the pack for them. I know what that is like.”
She says she also knows how resistant a teenager can be to information about the harmful effects of smoking. At age 14, her attitude was “it’s not so bad; I’m only smoking half a pack, I’ll be okay.”
In fact, Osborne’s approach of talking early and often about smoking is important, according to André Bourgeois, Liaison and Project Development Officer for the Quebec Council on Tobacco and Health, an anti-tobacco organization. He says parents who suspect or know that their child is smoking should take a deep breath and try to calm down before addressing the problem. Getting angry often makes teens defensive and they’ll just shut down (and continue to smoke behind your back). Instead, Bourgeois counsels parents to “be curious, get a good dialogue going and ask them what their motivation is for smoking and where the desire came from.”
Some of the reasons kids might start smoking may have to do with their social surroundings. If a parent smokes, for example, the child is more likely to follow suit. As well, tobacco companies have developed gimmicky products like flavoured cigarillos and little cigars made to look like candy or lip gloss that provide an easy route to nicotine addiction. Because they come in a variety of flavours, children are inclined to try them all to compare and pick their favourite one.
However, young people sometimes take up smoking because they are looking for friends and acceptance at school. That’s why it is critical for parents to talk openly and early about healthy friendships and how to be yourself in a group.
If broaching the topic of smoking seems difficult, families can turn to several local groups that offer online resources. DeFacto and the Youth Coalition Against Smoking (YCAS) are two organizations working to convince young people not to start smoking. Both have interactive websites that appeal to teens. Visit DeFacto at www.defacto.ca (site available in French only) and YCAS at www.lagangallumee.com.
Bourgeois says that Poison 14 is another good site that has an online game with the challenge to give up smoking for 14 days. Participants are encouraged to find healthy ways to overcome the urge to smoke, such as going for a walk or a swim. For more information, visit www.poison14.com.
We’ve come a long way since the days when smoking was an accepted part of life but tobacco still holds great allure for many young people. Hopefully, by bringing up the topic at a young age and keeping an open dialogue, we can prevent many young people from lighting up.
- Almost 90 per cent of adult smokers in Canada took up the habit before reaching age 20. Many young people will try smoking before they are 13.
- Within a month of trying their first cigarette, 25-30 per cent of youth show symptoms of addiction.
- About eight out of 10 people who try cigarettes get addicted to nicotine, which enters the brain six seconds after inhaling. Nicotine works on the reward pathways in the brain, meaning it provides feelings of pleasure to many smokers.
- A cigarette contains more than 4,000 chemicals, including formaldehyde (used to preserve dead bodies) and arsenic (a powerful poison).