Talking to Kids About Smoking

Talk to your child about the health benefits of not smoking.
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As of Dec. 20, 2019, the new legal age limit is 21 years old for purchasing cigarettes, cigars, or any other tobacco products in the U.S.

It’s never too early to talk to your kids about smoking. You might not think there’s a reason to have the discussion when your child is just 5 or 6 years old—after all, it’s unlikely that your first-grader is going to pick up a smoking habit—but the more time you have to reiterate the dangers and damage that smoking can cause, the better.

Tobacco use is the world’s leading cause of preventable death. The best way to prevent smoking-related deaths is to prevent children from picking up the habit.

When your child is young, they still look to you as the ultimate authority on what’s right and what’s wrong—so start the discussion early, using these tips to get you on the right path.

Research shows 90% of adult smokers picked up their first cigarette when they were a child. And in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 8% of high school students had smoked a cigarette within the past 30 days.

Focus on What Your Child Cares About

As you know, the worst part about smoking is the many types of cancer, lung problems, and other health problems that it can cause. But telling your child he might get cancer isn’t likely to be a deterrent. Kids aren’t likely to care as much about the potential long-term consequences.

Kids may respond more to some of the imminent effects of cigarettes—the smell that lingers in your hair and clothes, staining of your teeth, bad breath, skin problems, mouth pain, and more.

You might also find your child responds well to a conversation about the financial aspects of smoking. Take out a calculator and show your child how much money someone might spend if they smoked a pack of cigarettes each day for 10, 20, or 30 years. Then, discuss other things that the same person could have bought with that money.

Relate Your Conversation to Sports

If your child is a budding athlete, relate the dangers of smoking to their performance on the sports field. Explain how smoking could impair their ability to run, or tell them they may have to stop playing the game early because they’ll be out of breath.

Talk About Addiction

Cigarette companies know how to market their product, so it’s likely that young children don’t know about nicotine and how addictive it can be.

Make it clear that smoking is addictive and once you start smoking, it’s really hard to stop. Tell your child that nicotine is just as addictive as more dangerous drugs like heroin and cocaine.

Talk About the Dangers of Smoke-Free Alternatives

With the rise in electronic cigarettes, vape pens, hookahs, and smokeless tobacco, there are more ways than ever for your child to pick up a bad habit. And kids are more likely to see these smoke-free alternatives as a cooler, safer way to smoke.

From 2011 to 2015, there was a 900% increase in e-cigarette use among high school students. Since hitting the market, they've been available in fun flavors, like bubble gum or watermelon, and many young people think they are similar to candy. For this reason, the FDA is requiring e-cigarette companies to cease manufacturing and selling flavored vaping products (other than menthol and tobacco) by the end of January 2020. 

Make sure your kid knows that these alternatives are dangerous, too—e-cigarette aerosol is not safe and e-cigarette use is strongly associated with the use of other tobacco products among youth. So make it clear that smoke-free alternatives can have serious consequences too.

Discuss How to Say No

As much as it’s joked about, peer pressure is a real thing. If your child is offered a cigarette, and you’ve never talked to them about how to reject it without losing face in front of their friends, they’ll be more likely to say yes.

If your child will go along with it, try role-playing, in which you offer them cigarettes and your kid uses one of a variety of ways to say no. Some ideas include “No, thanks, I don’t like the way it smells,” “No, I need to be ready for basketball practice, and cigarettes make me feel out of breath,” or “I’d rather not, I don’t like the way it makes my chest feel.”

Have High-Quality Conversations

Don’t harp on your child about the dangers of smoking. Studies show talking about it all the time might actually increase the chances that your child smokes. Telling your child, “You can’t ever smoke!” or “All smokers are bad,” could actually encourage them to rebel. When they're a teenager they might be more inclined to try it just because you said they couldn’t.

Research shows holding high-quality conversations with your child can prevent them from picking up a cigarette. And studies show that the same conversation doesn’t work with all kids. Since you know your child best, it’s important to consider how you’ll best reach your child.

While it’s a serious topic, keeping the conversation free from judgment or threats of punishment will make it easier for your child to discuss cigarettes with you—and even let you know if they're offered one someday.

Emphasize the Importance of Making Good Health Choices

Instead of talking about the dangers of smoking repeatedly, talk about the importance of making healthy choices. Discuss how eating a healthy diet, getting plenty of sleep, and exercising regularly can help your child keep their body in good shape.

When your child values their ability to run fast or when they recognize that getting plenty of rest helps them pay attention in school, they’ll be less likely to engage in behavior that would put their health at risk.

Be a Good Role Model

Children who have parents who smoke are more likely to smoke themselves because they don’t see it as such a bad habit. Even if you say to your child that you want to quit or that you wish you didn’t smoke, your words aren’t likely to be effective. Children imitate what they see you do.

Therefore, it might be time for you to quit—for your health and the health of your child. Talk to your doctor about resources that could help you quit. Nicotine replacement therapy, certain prescription medications, support groups, or a tobacco hotline may be instrumental in helping you quit smoking.

Make Your Home Smoke-Free All the Time

Studies show limiting your child’s access to cigarettes and smokers will greatly reduce the chances that they’ll start smoking. So make it a household rule that no one is allowed to smoke or bring cigarettes into your home.

If you have friends or relatives who smoke, politely explain that you don’t allow smoking on your property. When your child sees that you’re consistent about setting limits—even with adults—they’ll be less likely to pick up the habit.

Look for Signs Your Child May Already Be Smoking

If your child is a little older, you might worry that they’ve already started smoking. Signs to watch for include bad breath, shortness of breath, stained or smelly clothing, coughing, and hoarseness.

If you need to have a conversation with a kid that you believe has already tried cigarettes, try to keep it open and honest—ask your child outright if they're smoking and, if the answer is yes, resist the urge to start yelling.

Calmly ask them reasons why they started, explain there are ways to change the behavior, and then start to create a plan together about how they will avoid cigarettes in the future. Resist the temptation to make threats and outline punishments, as these might push your child to become more secretive. They will also be less likely to approach you about their struggles if your approach is punishment-based.

If your child has started smoking regularly, they may need help quitting. Talk to your child's doctor about resources and options that could help them quit.

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is the Editor-in-Chief of Verywell Mind. She's also a psychotherapist, an international bestselling author of books on mental strength and host of The Verywell Mind Podcast. She delivered one of the most popular TEDx talks of all time.