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According to KidsHealth (Nemours Foundation), the web's most visited site about children's health, the health risks of tobacco are well known, yet the rates of smoking and the use of chewing tobacco continue to grow. Many people are picking up these habits when they are young - in fact, 90% of all adult smokers started when they were kids. And each day, more than 4,400 kids become regular smokers.

So it's important to make sure your child understands the dangers that go along with using tobacco. Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the United States. It can cause cancer, heart disease, or lung disease. Chewing tobacco (smokeless or spit tobacco) can lead to nicotine addiction, oral cancer, gum disease, and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, including heart attacks. 

If you arm your child with information about the risks of smoking and chewing tobacco, and establish clear rules and your reasons for them, you can help prevent your child from picking up those unhealthy habits. If your child is already using tobacco, there are warning signs that can clue you in and constructive ways to help your child quit.

The Facts About Tobacco
One of the major problems with smoking and chewing tobacco has to do with the chemical nicotine. A person can get addicted to nicotine within days of a first encounter with it. In fact, the nicotine in tobacco can be as addictive as cocaine or heroine. Nicotine affects a person's mood as well as the heart, lungs, stomach, and nervous system.

And there are other health risks. Short-term effects of smoking include coughing and throat irritation. Over time, more serious conditions may develop, including increases in heart rate and blood pressure. Smoking also leads to bronchitis and emphysema.

Finally, numerous studies indicate that young smokers are more likely to experiment with marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or other illicit drugs.

Preventing Your Child From Picking Up the Habit
Kids tend to be drawn to smoking and chewing tobacco for any number of reasons - to look cool, act older, lose weight, win cool merchandise, seem tough, or feel independent. But you can combat those draws and keep your child from trying - and getting addicted to - tobacco.

If you establish a good foundation of communication with your child early, it will be much easier later on to work through tricky issues like tobacco use. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:

  • Discuss sensitive topics in a way that doesn't make your child fear punishment or judgment.
  • Emphasize what your child does right rather than wrong. Self-confidence is your child's best protection against peer pressure.
  • Encourage your child to get involved in activities that prohibit smoking, such as sports.
  • Show your child that you value his or her opinions and ideas.
  • When it comes to the dangers of tobacco use, it's important to keep talking to your child about it over the years. Even the youngest child can understand that smoking is bad for the body.
  • Ask your child what he or she finds appealing - or unappealing - about smoking. Be a patient listener.
  • Read, watch television, and go to the movies with your child. Compare media images with what happens in reality.
  • Discuss ways to respond to peer pressure to smoke. Your child may feel confident simply saying "no." But also offer your child alternative responses such as "It will make my clothes and breath smell bad" or "I hate the way it makes me look."
  • Encourage your child to walk away from friends who don't recognize or respect his or her reasons for not smoking.
  • Explain how much smoking governs the daily life of kids who start doing it. How do they afford the cigarettes? How do they have money to pay for other things they want? How does it affect their friendships?
  • Establish firm rules that exclude smoking and chewing tobacco from your house and explain why: Smokers smell bad, look bad, and feel bad, and it's bad for everyone's health.

Signs That Your Child May Have Started Smoking
If you smell smoke on your child's clothing, try not to overreact. Ask your child about it first. It may mean your child has been hanging around with friends who smoke or that your child has simply tried a cigarette. Many kids do try a cigarette at one time or another, but don't go on to become regular smokers.

Some additional signs of tobacco use include:

  • Coughing
  • Throat irritation
  • Hoarseness
  • Bad breath
  • Decreased athletic performance
  • Greater susceptibility to colds
  • Stained teeth and clothing (which also can be signs of chewing tobacco use)
  • Shortness of breath

What to Do if Your Child Already Smokes
Sometimes even the best foundation isn't enough to stop a child from experimenting with tobacco. Although it may be tempting to get angry, it might be more productive to focus on communicating with your child. Here are some tips that may help:

  • Resist lecturing or turning your advice into a sermon.
  • Uncover what appeals to your child about smoking and talk about it honestly.
  • Remind your child about the immediate downsides to smoking: less money to spend on other pursuits, shortness of breath, bad breath, yellow teeth, and smelly clothes. Many times, kids aren't able to appreciate how their current behaviors can affect their future health.
  • Stick to the smoking rules you've set up. And don't let your child smoke at home to keep him or her at home or to keep the peace.
  • If your child says, "I can quit any time I want," ask him or her to show you by quitting cold turkey for a week.
  • Don't nag your child to quit. Ultimately, the decision is your child's - focus on helping your child to make a wise one.
  • Help your child develop a quitting plan and offer information and resources.
  • Reinforce your child's decision to quit with praise.
  • Stress the natural rewards that come with quitting: freedom from addiction, improved fitness, better athletic performance, and improved appearance.
  • Encourage a meeting with your child's doctor, who can be supportive emotionally and may have treatment plans.

If You are a Smoker
Kids are quick to observe any contradiction between what their parents say and what they do. Despite what you might think, most kids say that the adult whom they most want to be like when they grow up is a parent. 

  • First, admit to your child that you made a mistake by starting to smoke and that if you had it to do over again, you'd never start.
  • Second, quit. It's not simple by any means. It may take several attempts and the extra help of a program or support group. But your child will be encouraged as he or she sees you overcome your addiction to tobacco.

On a Final Note... Smokers in the Canadian province of Ontario will be fined C$250 for lighting up in their cars in the presence of children, if a new law recently introduced is passed. Under the proposed ban, drivers or passengers found smoking in a car carrying children under the age of 16 would be fined, even if a window is open. The province of Nova Scotia, the Yukon territory and a handful of U.S. states have already banned smoking in cars with children. Like many other jurisdictions, Ontario bans smoking in the workplace and in public places such as restaurants and bars.

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