Kindra Tanner, a high school student in Atlanta, started smoking when she was 13. Her mother had prohibited her from seeing an older boy she really liked, and that made her angry. One of her friends offered her a cigarette, and the relief she felt was immediate.
"They make you feel better when you first start," Kindra says. "You feel good — refreshed, like drinking water after running all day."
Jonathan Klein, a pediatrician at the University of Rochester who studies why teens start to smoke, says stories like Kindra's are common. After a decade of decline in teen smoking, the numbers have stalled at around 20 percent of all teens. It's more important than ever, Klein says, that parents do all they can to keep their children from experimenting with tobacco.
TV Smoke Lies
It shouldn't come as a surprise that teens like Kindra are primed to see smoking as a sort of relief, Klein says. That's the image television — one of the strongest influences in their lives — portrays.
Klein cites the characters in television's Sex in the City as an example. "Many of them are often using a cigarette as a relaxation device," he says, "either in the context of being together and talking, or in the context of being nervous and uptight, and reaching for cigarette and drink."
Klein has done a number of studies on why adolescents start to smoke. He says that research clearly shows that many are following the lead of their parents. Children of smokers are twice as likely to smoke themselves. To keep kids away from tobacco, don't smoke, he says. If you are a smoker, quit. And if you're trying to quit and are having trouble, share that difficulty with your children.
"When parents talk to their kids honestly about hopes, expectations and values as family — it has a big impact on what kids decide to try and do," Klein says.
Quitting Ain't Easy
Surveys show that teens often underestimate how hard it is for anyone to beat a nicotine addiction. While the vast majority of smokers try to quit at some point, less than 10 percent are successful. And even then, Klein says, it typically takes 10 or more attempts to quit for good.
Klein says don't just tell kids, show them. You can start out by pointing out scenes of "real life" smokers as you walk or drive along the street.
"You look outside doorways of buildings," he says, "and you see addicted people — most of whom want to quit and have tried to unsuccessfully — huddling outside waiting to go back in. That's not the way cigarette use is shown in movies or on TV."
The Truth Isn't Pretty
And parents can help kids notice when TV shows, movies or advertising use cigarettes to make a character seem cool or edgy; teens hate to be manipulated. Point out what the storyteller is leaving out: the yellow teeth, bad breath, wrinkles and expense that go along with regular tobacco use. If the increased risk of heart attack and lung cancer doesn't deter young athletes, remind them that it's hard to excel in sports with a smoker's hack.
Of course, says Klein, even if you do everything right, your child may still turn to tobacco, so watch for the signs. Ask questions if your child seems estranged or particularly rebellious, he says, or if they have friends who smoke or smell like cigarettes.
Kindra's mother, Darlene de la Plata, missed the signs.
"I would smell it on her clothes, but just kept thinking she was hanging out with people who were smoking," de la Plata says. "I tried to make excuses although I think on some level, I probably knew."
But last year, when Kindra got suspended from school for smoking, her mother, a masseuse who owns a health food store in Atlanta, finally had to face it. She tried hard to get her daughter to quit. Eventually Kindra did, but it took months.
Not Even One
Klein says some studies suggest that after exposure to the smoke of just a few cigarettes, the brain actually re-models itself and makes new nicotine receptors.
That's just one more reason, he says, to work hard to keep young people from ever starting. "I think the most important thing parents can do is really be clear with their children: Never experiment; never try that first cigarette."
Nearly all adults who smoke started before 18. And one-third had their first cigarette before the age of 14.