The Serious Implications for Kids Who Smoke
How do children start smoking, given the huge public anti-smoking awareness campaign?
Despite the widely publicized health dangers of smoking, there is an uptick in smoking habits among children and teenagers. It is very important to understand the underlying motives for this behavior. It’s easy to see how people were seduced by tobacco decades ago, when smoking was glamorized in popular culture. That’s specifically why tobacco advertisements in television and magazines were outlawed. However, despite ongoing campaigns to make smoking seem anything but “cool,” kids keep lighting up. There do appear to be some complex factors to this trend among children that deserve attention and discussion.
How are children different from adults when they start to smoke?
When young people start to smoke, their motivation often is to look older and more mature, particularly if they are hanging around older individuals who smoke. Another motivation is to fit in with peers who are already smoking; the intense pressure to be cool and join the group can be their undoing, even if they are aware of the health consequences. There’s also an element of excitement when these kids do something that is forbidden: The thrill of sneaking away to smoke without getting caught can get them started. This last explanation is particularly powerful with kids who don’t get their thrills through other behaviors.
Not long after a child or teen starts to smoke, there’s the addicting element of nicotine, which makes someone feel good, without the immediate symptoms of adverse health. It obviously takes time for a smoker’s cough or other symptoms to begin to show up.
Adults, on the other hand, smoke for other reasons. Personal or financial stress often instigates a smoking habit. Adults are also affected by the peer effect, but differently. They don’t necessarily feel peer pressure, but they do see the comfort cigarettes seem to provide to their peers — a feeling they long for as well. Even adults who already have severe illness or face dire economic situations, and see their situation as hopeless, can experience a sense of comfort when they begin to smoke.
Smoking also reduces appetite, the “model effect,” which is why we see weight gain in individuals who quit smoking. For many individuals, especially young women, vanity trumps health.
What brain mechanisms perpetuate a smoking habit?
The habit is established once somebody begins to smoke regularly and becomes accustomed to the pleasurable sensations and desensitized to its adverse consequences. Neuroscientists have traced habit behaviors to a part of the brain known as the limbic system, or hippocampus. The limbic system also plays a role in emotions, associating behaviors with pleasurable memories, and pattern recognition. Decisions are modulated by another part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, but once behaviors become automatic, as often smoking often does (after a meal or during a work break for example), the decision part of the brain goes into sleep mode, and whether or not to light up is determined in the limbic system. The habit becomes entrenched and very difficult to break.
Are there any helpful studies assessing self-control and willpower among children?
Behavioral patterns of children were studied at the University of Stirling’s Behavioral Science Centre in the United Kingdom, where researchers found that children with low self-control by age of ten were more likely not only to take up smoking, but to continue to smoke until well into their fifties. Assisted by the children’s teachers, who rated self-control based on factors including poor attention and impulsive behavior. Even when the researchers took into account other factors such as parental smoking, intelligence and social class, They found a clear link between low self-control at age 10 and a long-term habit. Levels of self-control vary among young children.
Obviously if you know that a child has poor self-control, the observations from this study suggest that early intervention may help prevent these kids from smoking and other dangerous habits. Continuing reinforcement also may help as they move into adulthood.
Here are five tips to help you break a smoking habit:
- If your habit is to smoke first thing in the morning when you wake up, try to take a shower first.
- If your habit is to smoke with coffee, then change to tea or some other drink, and start using a different mug.
- If your habit is to smoke when you work at the computer at home, try to shift your desk around or use the laptop in a different room.
- If your habit is to smoke after lunch or dinner, then go for a walk, steering clear of places where smoking is allowed.
- If your habit is to smoke directly after work, try exercise instead, which can reduce stress.
Another major tool: Keep track. Jot down a day’s worth of smoking habits, taking note of what you were doing or thinking each time you smoked. Read through it and take note of any common or obvious situations that seemed to instigate smoking. Use this information to help avoid or defuse any triggers.
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Eli Hendel, M.D. is a board-certified Internist and pulmonary specialist with board certification in Sleep Medicine. He is an Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at Keck-University of Southern California School of Medicine, and Qualified Medical Examiner for the State of California Department of Industrial Relations. His areas of expertise in private practice include asthma, COPD, sleep disorders, obstructive sleep apnea, and occupational lung diseases.