If we can prevent our young people from ever starting a tobacco habit, we will see a tremendous reduction in the number of adults who are hooked in the future.
The vast majority of current adult smokers began smoking before the age of 20. Ninety percent of adult smokers in Newberry stated they started as a teen. The decision to smoke or chew tobacco is almost always made during the teen years, and more than half of these teens will be addicted as adults, even if they started smoking with the intention of quitting in a few years.
The U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services issued a statement saying that every day “nearly 3,000 young people across our country will begin smoking regularly. Of these 3,000 young people, 1,000 will lose that gamble to the diseases caused by smoking. The net effect of this is that among children living in America today, five million will die an early, preventable death because of a decision made as a child.”
Compelling new research shows evidence that teenage smokers may face more long-term damage to their health by taking up smoking before the age of 18. Even after they quit, their youthful smoking habit can cause irreparable genetic changes in their lungs, thereby increasing their risk of lung cancer in later years.
In Newberry, children typically begin experimenting with spit tobacco around the age of 11 and with cigarettes around the age of 12.
The first use of tobacco is hard to resist, especially considering the ease of availability, the minimal legal and social consequences of tobacco use, and the slick marketing and advertising campaigns used by tobacco companies. When nicotine’s addictive properties are factored in, tobacco addiction ultimately follows. Remember, the earlier an individual starts smoking, the greater the lifetime risk of smoking-related diseases and death.
Another reason it’s important to help young people avoid the temptation to smoke is that underage smokers are much more likely than nonsmokers to use alcohol and other drugs. Specifically, across grades six through 12, underage smokers in South Carolina are four times more likely to drink alcohol, 10 times more likely to smoke marijuana, 17 times more likely to use hallucinogens and 25 times more likely to use cocaine.
Prevention is definitely the key.
One strategy Westview undertakes is to reduce youth access to tobacco at the point of sale. One effort of this strategy is called the Synar Youth Access to Tobacco Study, named for Congressman Mike Synar, who spearheaded the legislation mandating the study. During “Synar” implementation, volunteer youth visit various tobacco outlets in Newberry County and attempt to purchase cigarettes. Educational programming is made available to outlets whose staff sells to the underage buyers. Another access reduction initiative is the Tobacco Compliance Check program. In this effort, volunteer youth make purchase attempts, as in the Synar study. However, when a merchant sells to the underage buyer, a participating law enforcement officer issues a violation to the merchant.
As well, parents can do much toward preventing the use of tobacco by young people, but first they need to understand that all young people are at risk of using tobacco products, no matter what their family background or income level. Children model their lives after the people they value. Thus, the most important thing parents and other adults can do is set a good example.
The best practice is not to smoke at all. At the least, avoid using tobacco products in their presence, and don’t involve them in your smoking by asking them to bring you a cigarette or hand you a lighter or ashtray.
Give your children accurate information about the consequences of tobacco use and smoking. Put it in terms they can relate to — usually in reference to their lifestyle and friendships, such as having bad breath, smelly clothes, stained teeth and the possibility of losing privileges. Remind them about the laws governing tobacco sales to minors and help them be strong so they can withstand peer pressure. Encourage them to take part in youth-oriented prevention programs.
As parents and neighbors in Newberry, we must work in our local community to change social views about tobacco and youth. Let’s make 2018 the year we quit pulling the tobacco leaf over our eyes when it comes to our youth and tobacco use.
Hugh Gray is the executive director at Westview Behavioral Health Services and can be reached at 803-276-5690.