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Smoking cigarettes is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States. It can also cause many diseases.

But many young people pick up a smoking habit every year. In fact, 90% of adult smokers started when they were kids. So it's important for parents to learn all they can and to talk openly with kids early and often to help kids steer clear.

What Problems Can Smoking Cause?

The smoke from burning tobacco contains many harmful chemicals (such as lead, arsenic, and carbon monoxide) that can damage all body systems when breathed in. And this affects not only the smoker, but people who are around them.

One chemical, nicotine, does damage in a different way. It causes a person to become addicted within days of first using it. In fact, the nicotine in tobacco can be as addictive as cocaine or heroin. When a person starts to smoke, it's hard to stop.

Health problems linked to smoking include:

  • heart disease
  • lung disease, such as pneumonia, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • stroke
  • many types of cancer
  • ulcers
  • gum disease, which can lead to teeth falling out
  • eye disease that can even lead to blindness
  • diabetes
  • joint problems, such as arthritis
  • skin problems, like psoriasis and lots of wrinkles
  • fertility problems (making it harder to get pregnant)
  • problems during pregnancy that can affect the baby’s health
  • weaker bones, leading to fractures

There are other things to think about when people start smoking at a young age. First, nicotine can harm the developing brain. It can be harder for kids who smoke to learn new things or to pay attention. They're also likely to become addicted very quickly (even more so than adults). Nicotine is also linked to depression and anxiety in young smokers. And many studies show that young smokers are more likely to drink alcohol and to try marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or other drugs.

E-cigarettes and hookahs (water pipes) aren’t any better. They can be filled with nicotine or other harmful chemicals. Health experts report serious lung damage in people who vape, including some deaths. Even smokeless tobacco (for example, tobacco products that can be chewed, sucked on, or even inhaled into the nose) isn't safe and can lead to many health problems, including heart disease and cancer.

How Can Parents Talk to Kids About Smoking?

Kids might be drawn to smoking for many reasons — to look cool, act older, lose weight, seem tough, or feel independent.

But parents can fight those draws and keep kids from trying cigarettes and getting addicted to them. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Set firm rules that ban smoking from your house and explain why: Smokers smell bad, look bad, and feel bad, and it's bad for everyone's health.
  • Talk about smoking in a way that doesn't make kids fear punishment or judgment. Show that you value your kids' opinions and ideas.
  • Ask what kids find appealing — or unappealing — about smoking. Be a patient listener.
  • Focus on what kids do right rather than wrong. Self-confidence is a child's best protection against peer pressure.
  • Discuss ways to respond to peer pressure to smoke. Your child may be fine just saying no. But offer other responses too, such as "It will make my clothes and breath smell bad" or "I hate the way it makes me look." If needed, kids should feel it's OK to walk away from friends who don't respect their reasons for not smoking.
  • Encourage kids to get involved in activities that don't allow smoking, such as sports.
  • Explain how much smoking takes over the daily life of smokers. How do they afford the cigarettes? How do they have money to pay for other things they want? How does it affect their friendships?

Keep talking to kids over the years about the dangers of smoking. Even the youngest child can understand that it's bad for the body.

What if My Child Smokes?

Even when kids are well aware of the health risks, some still try smoking. If that happens, try not to get angry. Instead, focus on communicating with your child:

  • Find out what appeals to your child about smoking and talk about it honestly.
  • Often, kids can't appreciate how their current behaviors can affect their future health. So talk about the problems that happen sooner: less money to spend on things they like, shortness of breath, bad breath, yellow teeth, and smelly clothes.
  • Stick to the smoking rules you've set, and don't let your child smoke at home.
  • If your child says, "I can quit any time I want," ask them to show you by quitting cold turkey for a week.

Resist lecturing and try not to nag. In the end, quitting is the smoker's decision. When your child is ready to try:

  • Help develop a quitting plan. Praise their decision to quit.
  • Focus on the rewards that come with quitting: freedom from addiction, improved fitness, better sports performance, a better appearance.
  • Encourage a meeting with your doctor, who can be supportive and may have treatment plans.

When Parents Smoke

Kids are quick to spot gaps between what their parents say and what they do. And most kids say that the adult whom they most want to be like when they grow up is a parent.

If you're a smoker:

  • First, admit that you made a mistake by starting to smoke. Say that if you had it to do over again, you'd never start.
  • Second, quit. It's not simple and it may take a few tries and the extra help of a program or support group. But your kids will be encouraged as they see you overcome your addiction to tobacco. You can find information and support online at:
Medically reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: October 2023