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Healthy Family

Teenage Smoking Has Many Risks, Including Increased Difficulty Quitting in Adulthood

Illustration by Carolyn Calloway

 Whether he’s leaping across the Bell Auditorium stage as the White Stag in the Columbia County Ballet’s Roar of Love or spinning and jumping as the Candy Cane lead in the troupe’s Nutcracker, Michael Viator needs all his available lung capacity. Since smoking would interfere with the 17-year-old Richmond County home schooled student’s love of dance, he doesn’t even consider touching cigarettes.

“If you are smoking, you are not healthy. Your energy level can go down. In order to dance, you have to have a lot of energy,” he says.
Michael’s mom, Jennifer Seigler, also a non-smoker, says she always emphasized to him the importance of taking care of his body. “I showed him pictures on the Internet of what smoking does to the body,” she says."

Their faith has also played a role in him keeping his body healthy. “Our bodies belong to Christ and we want to live a long life,” she says.

Young Smokers Are Top Age-Group of New Smokers

While there are teens like Michael who take a stand against tobacco, there are many who do not and statistics show teen tobacco use is still a major problem, according to Dr. Martha Tingen, professor and co-director of the Child Health Discovery Institute, and Charles W. Linder, M.D., endowed chair in pediatrics, Medical College of Georgia, Department of Pediatrics, Georgia Health Sciences University.
“There are basically 3,000 new smokers every day,” says Tingen, who is currently working on three smoking studies involving children and teens and, in some cases, their parents. According to the studies, the number one age group for those trying tobacco for the first time is between the ages of 10 and 13, she says.

Every two years the Centers for Disease Control conducts the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey of high school students. Over the past 20 years, the numbers of teens smoking has decreased. In 1991, 70.1 percent of high schoolers had tried cigarettes, while in 2009, 46.3 percent of all high school students had tried cigarettes. Also, the number of high school students who had smoked cigarettes for 20 or more days had decreased from 12.7 in 1991 to 7.3 in 2009.

“Yes, we have made positive progress, but when 50 percent are still trying cigarettes, it’s a problem.” - Dr. Martha Tingen

But to Tingen, these numbers are still too high. “Yes, we have made positive progress, but when 50 percent are still trying cigarettes, it’s a problem,” she says.

Although the numbers have dropped in 20 years, Tingen says they’ve held steady for the past four.

Dangers to Teens Who Smoke

Teen brains and nicotine have an unusual connection not found in adult brains. “It’s been shown there is something unique about the teen brain between the ages 12 and 19 and nicotine dependency,” Tingen says. “The adolescent brain is especially sensitive to nicotine addiction.”

This connection makes it more difficult for people who started smoking in their teens to quit.

Tingen gives an example of a 60-year-old woman who started smoking when she was 13 would find it more difficult to quit than a 45-year-old who started at 25 or even a 75-year-old who started at 25.

The American Lung Association’s Web site says “people who begin smoking at an early age are more likely to develop a severe addiction to nicotine than those who start at a later age. Of adolescents who have smoked at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetime, most of them report that they would like to quit, but are not able to do so.”

According to the CDC, smoking is linked to many diseases. Not only does it cause lung cancer, but it causes other cancers such as cancers of the bladder, kidney and cervix, uterus and stomach. It can also cause lung diseases such as emphysema, bronchitis and chronic airway obstructions. Also, it can lead to coronary disease.

Parents who smoke in the home put their children at risk for these diseases as well, even if the children never take up the habit.
“Smoking is the only behavior that can adversely affect someone else at the blood-cell level,” Tingen says

Second-hand smoke causes 3,400 annual deaths due to lung cancer and 46,000 annual deaths to heart disease, according to the CDC.
Tingen says she personally knows someone whose parents were heavy smokers and the individual, who never smoked, has stage III lung cancer.

Why Teens Smoke

Tingen says there are many reasons teen-agers smoke. “Parents are a great influence,” she says.

According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, “Research shows that children who have a parent who smokes are more likely to smoke and to be heavier smokers at young ages. When parents quit smoking, their children become less likely to start smoking and more likely to quit if they already smoke.” (

Peer pressure, weight control and tobacco company marketing strategies are other reasons why teens smoke.
Tingen says many female teens often take up the habit to keep their weight under control.  “Smoking speeds the heart rate up in an unhealthy way,” she says. “The body doesn’t get the benefit of exercise.”

While the heart is in its smoking-induced, revved up state, the body can burn more calories, but the cost weighs more than the benefit, she says.

Another draw comes through tobacco companies who Tingen says have taken up some campaigns that anger her. She’s seen them put appealing bands of color around the cigarettes and offer them with matching lipstick, she says.

An Ounce of Prevention

Tingen says it’s much better for teens to never pick up the habit than to try and quit.

Prevention starts with parents and it’s not just by parents giving their teens all the reasons not to smoke. “They should talk about it and model it, but they should have a great relationship with their children,” she says.

Tingen says studies show parents who have at least one meal a day at home with their children reduce the chances of their children engaging in risky behaviors such as smoking and using illicit drugs and have overall better relationships with their children and teens.
Also, children who have good relationships with their parents tend to pick friends they know their parents would like. Likewise, bad relationships tend to influence children to pick out friends their parents won’t like.

Tingen has also worked on a study that shows prevention programs work better when giving children and parents the life skills to say no to tobacco when pressured in social settings or by peers.

Tingen says she’d like to see this type of program implemented in schools.

Charmain Z. Brackett is an Augusta freelance writer and mother of three.

Some smoking statistics from the American Lung Association:

  • Among adults who smoke, 68 percent began smoking regularly at age 18 or younger and 85 percent started when they were 21 or younger. The average age of daily smoking initiation for new smokers in 2008 was 20.1 years among those 12-49 years old.
  • Exposure to pro-tobacco marketing and media more than doubles the chances (2.2 times) of children and adolescents starting tobacco use.
  • One study found that teens exposed to the greatest amount of smoking in movies were 2.6 times more likely to start smoking themselves compared with teens who watched the least amount of smoking in movies.
  • Smoking is responsible for one in five deaths in the United States.
  • Cigarette smoking costs the economy more than $193 billion in annual healthcare costs and lost productivity.

When they find themselves in the middle of a problem involving drugs and other major issues, kids and teenagers can find advice here if they need it.

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