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Keeping Kids From Lighting Up

(Page 2 of 3)

Parents might also point out the social consequences of smoking, says Lloyd Johnston at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research, which did a landmark study of drug use among 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders. He notes that a substantial number of adults say they would rule out a smoker as a potential marriage partner.

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Nonsmoking teens express disgust over the smell and the taste. Many also cite athletic performance as a reason to not smoke. "If you smoke, you can't skate," says Wallace, a Boston teen who is a serious in-line skater.

Correcting false views is another step parents can take. A CDC report concludes that "adolescents consistently overestimate the number of young people and adults who smoke. Those with the highest overestimates are more likely to become smokers than are those with more accurate perceptions."

Therefore, denormalizing smoking is an effective part of prevention.

"Fewer than 25 percent of adults smoke," says Gregory Connolly, director of the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program. He suggests that parents emphasize that smoking is not normal behavior and the best way to do that is to not smoke, themselves. In addition, they should talk about the addictive nature of nicotine (similar to heroin), teach refusal skills, teach media-literacy (dissect a tobacco ad and how it intends to influence), and not treat smoking like a forbidden fruit.

Exposing the tobacco industry gives young people the chance to redirect their rebellion, Mr. Connolly says. "Teens hate manipulation, judgmentalism, and hypocrisy," Clark says. Ask them, "Are you being manipulated by media?"

In focus groups, when teen smokers find out some of the ingredients in cigarettes, including chemicals found in nail-polish remover and batteries, they feel betrayed and angry, Forster says. When they think about their smoke harming children and pregnant women, they also get upset.

Researchers disagree on how effective harping on health consequences is with teens. Young smokers can often list the health consequences but few see themselves at risk. "Most kids don't believe they will get addicted," says Dori, a Boston high school senior, who says she thinks her once-occasional habit has become an addiction.

Researchers say probably the worst thing parents can do is remain silent, but plenty do, especially if they smoke. "Kids are looking for guidelines," reiterates Clark. But some parents fear the response, the back talk, and want to avoid conflict. "Children are looking for limits and too often we offer them friendship," she says.

Nonsmoking teens will explain why they don't smoke in hyperbole. "My parents are totally against it. If I ever got caught, I'd be grounded forever," says Patrick, a young Cincinnati nonsmoker. That kind of comment, says Clark, translates into "I have too much respect for my parents."

Dr. Forster, at the University of Minnesota, has had similar findings. "What seems to influence them is disappointing people they respect." Some will mention grandparents.