How to Talk to Your Kids About the Dangers of Smoking and Tobacco Use

Eileen Howard Boone, President of the CVS Health Foundation and Senior Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility and Philanthropy for CVS Health, shares tips for successfully talking to kids about tobacco.

Talking to kids about tobacco is an important step in delivering the first tobacco-free generation.

As teenagers continue to be exposed to images and messages that glamorize smoking — in movies and on TV, through advertisements, and now with e-cigarettes — conversations about the dangers of tobacco use have never been more important.

A recent FDA report showed that 16 percent of high school and 5.3 percent of middle school students were current users of e-cigarettes in 2015, making e-cigarettes the most commonly used tobacco product among youth for the second consecutive year. That is a startling statistic that cannot be ignored, especially when you consider that those who begin smoking earlier in life are more likely to develop a severe nicotine addiction. As your kids head back to high school and college, the only way to help them avoid the dangers of smoking is to start a dialogue to arm them with information and empower them to become their own advocates and part of the nation’s first tobacco-free generation.

It’s not an easy conversation to have, but it is a necessary one. Here are five tips to help you get started when talking to your teens about tobacco use:

1. Emphasize that being tobacco-free is part of a healthy lifestyle.

When talking to your kids about the importance of a healthy lifestyle, be sure to include not smoking in the conversation. Teens and young adults should know that avoiding tobacco is as important as continuing to eat healthy foods and being physically active. By incorporating a tobacco-free orientation into your family’s overall health goals, you can help reinforce this idea over time.

2. Be a role model as a non-smoker and choose wisely.

Kids who grow up in a smoke-free home are healthier and less likely to smoke themselves. According to the CDC, nearly 41 percent of children between the ages of 3 – 11 are exposed to secondhand smoke, which even at brief levels can be harmful to a person’s health. Insist on a smoke-free household and try to visit only smoke-free establishments. And make sure to explain to your kids why you choose certain restaurants and businesses over others. This way, they can learn to seek out and choose tobacco-free environments on their own.

3. Share your own thoughts and experiences.

Though it can be difficult to do, sharing your own lessons and experiences with smoking and tobacco use can help you reach your teenagers on a deeper, more meaningful level. Letting them know just how difficult it can be to quit – be it from your own personal experience or from watching someone else in your life become tobacco-free – can make a big impact and help teach your teenagers about the long-term implications of tobacco use. Most importantly, let them know how much it means to you that they lead tobacco-free lives. And encourage them to share what they’ve learned with their friends through social media, photos or even a school science project. It can be hard, so be persistent.

4. Explain that they won’t just be hurting themselves.

Secondhand smoke kills. Be sure to let your teenagers and young adults know that tobacco smoke can be just as dangerous to those around the smoker (including pets!) as it is for the smoker themselves. Tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, including toxic ingredients, and around 70 of these chemicals are believed to cause cancer. Discussing the dangers of secondhand smoke with your children will not only help them understand the larger implications of smoking, but also help them make smarter choices about who to hang out with if their peers around them begin to experiment with tobacco.

5. Talk about e-cigarettes.

Though cigarette smoking has decreased among youth in recent years, the use of e-cigarettes is unfortunately on the rise among middle, high school and college students. Many people mistakenly assume these products are safer because they don’t contain tobacco, however e-cigarettes do contain nicotine — the same addictive chemical as traditional cigarettes — and tests have found that some also contain toxic chemicals like formaldehyde. Since the packaging on these products tends to be geared towards teenagers, it is crucial to include e-cigarettes in your conversation when discussing the dangers of smoking with your kids. Make sure they understand that these products are not safe, and that they should avoid them and their addictive qualities like they would tobacco.

By talking to our kids about the dangers of tobacco, we can encourage them to lead tobacco-free lives. Through creating an understanding of the lifelong damage tobacco use and smoking can inflict for our youth, we can ensure that those who don’t smoke never start, and provide those who do with the support they need to quit. And together, we can help deliver the first tobacco-free generation.