The Truth About Kids and Smoking

Every day, more than 3,800 children ages 12 to 17 in the United States smoke their first cigarette, according to the 2012 US Surgeon General’s report, Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults, putting themselves at risk for nicotine addiction and the many diseases associated with smoking, including lung cancer.

Among the report’s key statistics:

  • About 3 million high school students and 624,000 middle school students smoke.
  • One out of 4 high school seniors is a regular cigarette smoker.
  • Among those who continue to smoke, about half will die earlier than their non-smoking peers, losing on average about 13 years of life.
  • 88% of adults who smoke daily started smoking by age 18; 99% started by age 26.

Almost all tobacco use begins during youth and young adulthood. The Surgeon General’s office says if young people can remain free of tobacco until age 18, most will never start smoking. But to do that, they have to resist marketing strategies by tobacco companies.

Tobacco marketing

The Surgeon General’s report says tobacco companies spent almost $10 billion to market cigarettes in 2008 – the latest year for which numbers are available. That effort was primarily aimed at reducing the price of cigarettes, which makes them more attractive to adolescents. Most of the marketing money was spent on discounts, price promotions, coupons and other activities that resulted in lower retail prices of cigarettes.

Flavored cigarettes are against the law because they appeal to children – but flavored cigars aren’t. Cigarette-sized cigars are available in flavors like grape, chocolate, and strawberry, and look like cigarettes. Nearly one-third of high school seniors have tried a cigar.

Many smokeless products like chew, snuff, and dissolvable tobacco also come in candy-like flavors. So does the tobacco used in hookahs, a type of water pipe. A survey of high school students in 2011 found that about 26% had used hookahs; 11% had done so in the past month.

Studies have shown that adolescents who see actors smoking in movies are more likely to smoke themselves, and children ages 9 to 14 are more likely to be influenced than 16-to-22 year olds. In 2010, nearly a third of top-grossing youth related movies – those with G, PG, or PG-13 ratings – contained images of tobacco use.

Anti-tobacco efforts at home

The Surgeon General’s report says quit-smoking programs are effective when they combine mass media campaigns, price increases, and smoke-free policies in schools and communities. But parents can do a lot, too:

  • Set an example by not using tobacco yourself.
  • If you use tobacco, you can still make a difference. Your best move, of course, is to try to quit. Meanwhile, don’t use tobacco around your children, don’t offer it to them, and don’t leave it where they can easily get it.
  • Talk to your children about the dangers of tobacco.
  • Tell your children you expect them to never use tobacco – or if they’re already using it – to quit.
  • Be aware of what your children are doing and who their friends are.
  • Network with other parents who can help you encourage children and teens to refuse tobacco.
  • Encourage your children’s schools to enforce tobacco-free policies.
  • Enforce movie age restrictions and discourage teens from playing video games that feature smoking.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults: A Report of the Surgeon General. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Office on Smoking and Health, 2012.

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