Shedding Light on Teen Smoking

I was a freshman in high school when I tried my first cigarette. My friend and I had convinced an older kid to buy us a pack of Marlboro 100’s. We parked ourselves in a secluded spot near our school, pulled out a lighter we had bought at a gas station and lit one up. In those days, the upperclassman at my school who I considered to be “cool” were smokers.  Unfortunately, although these kids made smoking look easy, my lungs were not ready for that first puff. I immediately choked—almost convulsing from the harsh smoke. I pushed past my initial discomfort and continued to inhale the rough smoke. I figured there had to be some sort of appeal since so many of the upperclassman smoked.

Fortunately, that cigarette was both my first and last. As I look back now on that first experience, I realize that I was largely attracted by the social allure that surrounded the act of smoking. During my teen years — especially around the transition from middle school to high school — many of my behaviors were strongly influenced by the social world that surrounded me. Although none of my close friends smoked regularly, the juniors and seniors that I looked-up to and wanted to accept me all seemed to smoke. And I believed that smoking might gain me favor within their friend group.

Why do teens smoke?

Many factors contribute to whether a teen decides to smoke but the influence of peers may be the most important predictor.  Research shows that an adolescent’s smoking behavior tends to be very similar to that of his or her peers.  Teens who have friends who smoke are more likely to start smoking themselves and  having a best friend who smokes is one of the strongest predictors of smoking initiation. Furthermore, adolescents who have a majority of friends who smoke are twice as likely to smoke themselves. In addition to peer influence, family members can also have an impact on a teen’s smoking behavior. The attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors of parents regarding cigarette use can all be very influential when it comes to whether or not a teen decides to start smoking. If a parent smokes, it greatly increases the risk of their teen smoking. When both parents smoke, the risk is even greater. However, this risk can be reduced if parents are able to quit smoking.

How to reduce the chances that your teen starts smoking

Given the serious health risks associated with smoking, it is not surprising that most parents want to keep their child from smoking, or if they have started, want them to quit. Here are a few tips to help you reduce the chance that your teen will become a lifelong smoker:

  • Show your teen that you care about their smoking behavior. Smoking is arguably one of the most dangerous activities an individual can engage in. Youth today are likely aware of the potential dangers of cigarette-use due to the many successful mass-media campaigns and educational efforts that exist. But the influence of these initiatives on teens may not always be enough to prevent cigarette use or experimentation. Evidence suggests that parents who visibly show concern about their adolescent’s smoking can reduce the likelihood of both experimentation and the chance that the teen will become a habitual smoker. Furthermore, a home environment that provides a safe space for a teen to discuss problems and that promotes an open and frequent line of communication, may also reduce the likelihood of smoking.
  • Reduce smoking-cues in the household. Although the period of adolescence may be a time of experimentation with new roles and behaviors, parental behaviors and values are still highly influential. A home-environment where parents or family members smoke, or approve of smoking may present a challenge to the developing adolescent who has yet to start smoking. Such an environment communicates to your teen that cigarettes are OK and smoking is an acceptable behavior. Parents can have a positive influence by quitting or reducing their cigarette intake, and by removing smoking related paraphernalia such as cigarettes or lighters. Limiting the smoking behavior of others who enter the house can also reduce the likelihood that a teen will experiment with cigarettes.
  • Practice “Exit strategies.” Some teens may feel pressure to partake in smoking when around others. If your teen knows smoking is not something they want to do, you can practice ways for them to get out of situations where they may feel pressured. Saying things like, “I have to go to the bathroom” or taking out their phone to send an important text (which will keep their hands busy) are simple ways they can avoid lighting up without having to take a strong stance against their peers. They can even take that time to text you about their accomplishment!
  • Help your child develop a new social group. As was discussed in a previous post (When you don’t approve of your child’s friends), teens often have more than one group of friends. If you are worried about your teen’s primary group of friends, it may be possible to support (but not force) the development of new or existing friendships with youth who are less likely to approve of smoking. It has been observed that teens who have a high percentage of friends who are physically active are less likely to smoke themselves. In my case, as a swimmer in high school and college, I can’t recall any of my teammates smoking cigarettes or approving of doing so. Providing help with transportation, fees, or organization of events can all help guide your teen towards activities that promote positive peer relationships.

How to respond if your teen is experimenting with cigarettes or regularly smoking

Finding out that your teen is experimenting with or regularly smoking can be a shocking and upsetting experience for parents. It is important for parents who choose to address this behavior with their child to keep their frustrations and emotions outside of the conversation. Teens are in a constant state of seeking independence, and fighting against parents’ wishes can be a big part of this process. Staying factual, firm, and supportive can position parents to have a positive impact on their child’s decision to stop smoking, or at the very least, consider the very serious risks.

  • Research the risks. If your child is going to make a very serious decision that can put their health at risk, it is important they know the facts. While many youth “know” that smoking is bad, having concrete ideas about what this means is important. This is especially true for teens, whose brain development focuses them in on the present with little attention paid to longer-term consequence (This is why teens have been called risk junkies). Long-term consequences are not particularly motivating for teens. However, teens are very sensitive about how they look. So sharing the facts that smoking makes one’s breath smell bad, stains teeth, causes skin to wrinkle, causes hair to thin, increases the likelihood of having a flabby stomach and induces bags under the eyes can be a real turn off for teens.
  • Set your own boundaries. Research shows that children of parents who verbally express concern about their child’s current (or future) smoking behaviors, and who live in households with smoke-free policies are less likely to smoke. Every family is going to have different boundaries that they are comfortable with so set boundaries that work for you. In addition, be sure to communicate these boundaries clearly to your teen.
  • Harm reduction. Although this may be the least appealing option as a parent, it is increasingly recognized that smoking prevention programs that only focus on complete abstinence or refusal may be too narrow and lack long-term sticking power. It has been observed that some adolescents may not care about the harmful effects of cigarettes or feel that it is too hard to resist the pressures of their social environment. In these cases, some experts have suggested that it may be beneficial to substitute “safer” sources of nicotine for more harmful sources of nicotine (cigarettes). In the U.S., a variety of smokeless tobacco (ST) products exist including traditional smokeless tobacco (chewing tobacco), snus, dissolvable tobacco (sticks, strips, or pellets), or the increasingly popular electronic-cigarette. Although all of these products expose the user to toxic agents, there is evidence to suggest that the health risks from ST use are much less than those from smoking. For example, current research has found that ST product use was at least safer than smoking, was not a gateway to smoking, and has reduced smoking rates dramatically in countries (e.g., Sweden) that have replaced smoking with ST products.
  • Support efforts to stop. If a youth who smokes decides they want to stop, it is important to acknowledge and support this decision. It is also important to understand that this may be a difficult process and there could be slip-ups along the way. Offer to support their efforts to stop by listening to their concerns and worries both before and during their quit-attempt, providing them with access to smoking cessation resources such as counseling and nicotine replacement therapy (gum, patches, inhalers, or lozenges), and helping them identify healthy behaviors they can use to keep their hands/mouth busy (e.g., keeping a jar of candies around) when they would rather be smoking are all ways of showing your support. See for additional resources on how to quit smoking successfully, which includes free access to the quitSTART app. an app for phones or tablets made for teens who want to quit smoking.

Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death and illness worldwide. Although the risks are great for those who start smoking regularly, not all individuals who experiment with smoking become addicted. As a parent, there are a number of steps you can take to protect against experimentation or to help your child quit smoking if they have already begun. Creating an open line of communication early will enable you to equip your youth with the information, skills, and environment to make positive choices to help them avoid this nasty habit.

Have you had to deal with a teen smoking before? How did you handle it? Share your experience below.


  Article by Albert Burgess-Hull

Albert Burgess-Hull is a graduate student in the Human Development and Family Studies department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He studies how an individual’s social network affects health and substance-use behaviors.