When young lives go up in smoke

The first time I lit a cigarette and dragged the smoke into my lungs I was a 13-year-old schoolgirl with an idea that I must try something forbidden.

Thirteen years later I was still smoking. I always knew that smoking can cause lung cancer but I felt immortal and thought: ‘Oh well, 50 is a long time away but for now it won’t hurt to smoke”.

For me the greatest attraction to smoke was to keep my weight down. A diet of cigarettes and coffee was what all the models were doing. I always justified it to myself that it was better to be thin and unhealthy than overweight.

The turning point came when I watched my sister struggling to breathe. She had developed asthma as a result of smoking and was forced to go on steroids.

But had I known as a teenager that the high levels of carbon monoxide you inhale from cigarettes make you feel sluggish, perhaps I would have kicked the butt earlier.

Studies in the United States have proven that smoking can trigger depression and other anxiety disorders in teens, as well as self-destructive behaviour.

Equally shocking are the other ailments teenagers who smoke expose themselves to: lung and other cancers, mental impairment, fatigue, gastrointestinal disorders, hearing loss, taste impairment, serious eye problems, headaches, premature aging … the list goes on.

It is extremely hard to prevent children from smoking, especially if the parent or teacher is a smoker as well. Advice from countless anti-smoking organisations says that honesty and acknowledging your own addiction is central to getting teenagers to listen.

Teachers need to create awareness of the dangers of smoking for teenagers. Even passive smokers need to know the risks they face. Smoke detectors in schools are a luxury that most schools cannot afford. But if the student smells of smoke then you can be sure he/she is smoking.

Wendy Schwartz from the Institute for Urban and Minority Education http://iume.tc.columbia.edu/ has tips on how to get teenagers to stop smoking:

– Smoking is not personally or socially desirable. Dispel the myths that tobacco is functional for stress reduction, weight maintenance and social enhancement.

– Point out that the places where smoking is acceptable are decreasing. Many adolescents, unwilling to risk the health hazards from second-hand smoke, do not want to be near smokers.

– Smoking takes away a smoker’s free choice. Since adolescents especially desire autonomy over all areas of their lives, demonstrate how tobacco addiction takes away free will, particularly the ability to stop smoking.

– Smoking is not an adult habit or an effective act of rebellion. Point out that smoking is not a sign of maturity. Adolescents who want to rebel against those seeking to control them should resist the lure of tobacco companies and their advertising agencies, not non-smoking adults.

– Smoking destroys good health. Show the probable physical effects of smoking in full detail.

Most teenagers do not smoke and it is okay to refuse to smoke. Point out that fewer than 20% of teenagers smoke regularly. Youth who begin to smoke because their peers do are really succumbing to perceived pressures from a minority. Help teenagers develop ‘refusal skills” to give them the courage to reject behaviours they may not choose.

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