The good news is that teens who don’t smoke cigarettes probably never will. The bad news is that smoking usually begins during adolescence. In fact, about 80 percent of adult smokers started in their teens, and people who started smoking before the age of 21 have the hardest time quitting.
Since studies have linked smoking to attention and memory deficits in adults, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, recently wanted to see what effect cigarette use had on the brain function of adolescents. They focused on the prefrontal cortex, the area in charge of executive functions like decision-making, in 25 smokers and 25 non-smokers between the ages of 15 and 21. In teens, this area is still developing.
Their findings should give parents pause. According to the study, the greater a teen’s nicotine addiction, the more sluggish the prefrontal cortex. This suggests—in addition to all other known health risks—that smoking can affect brain function.
But again, there’s good news. Because both smokers and non-smokers performed equally well during a response-inhibition test, the researchers also believe that early interventions may prevent teens from making the transition from an occasional cigarette (in response to peer pressure) to addiction later in life.
Butt In & Butt Out
You can help keep your teens from smoking, so educate them about the risks. The Centers for Disease Control says, “If friends or relatives died from tobacco-related illnesses, let your kids know.”
Further, the CDC says, “If you use tobacco, you can still make a difference. Your best move, of course, is to try to quit. Meanwhile, don’t use tobacco in your children’s presence, don’t offer it to them, and don’t leave it where they can easily get it. Know if your kids’ friends use tobacco. Talk about ways to refuse tobacco. Discuss with kids the false glamorization of tobacco on billboards and in other media, such as movies, TV, and magazines.”
If that approach fails, appeal to their vanity and their frugality. Smoking makes hair, breath, clothing, and their car smell bad. It stains teeth. And it’s expensive.
When you’re out, support businesses that don’t sell tobacco to kids. Patronize tobacco-free restaurants and other venues. Be sure your teen’s school and all school activities (such as parties and sporting events) are tobacco-free.
And partner with local tobacco-prevention programs. Call your town’s health department or the cancer, heart, or lung association to learn how to get involved.
For more on teen smoking prevention, visit The Foundation for a Smokefree America.