Up in smoke: the teen tobacco epidemic
By Travis Mord
Tobacco use by teenagers has become an increasing concern in recent years. Innovations in the tobacco industry have evolved to target teens for their products, and a growing market is developing solely for the purpose of increasing teen tobacco use rates. Products such as tobacco flavors, juices, vape pens, or other vape products coupled with directed advertising have increased overall tobacco use among teenagers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that while the use of cigarettes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco has gone down among teens from 2011 to 2018, electronic cigarette (e-cigarette) use has skyrocketed from 4.9% in 2011 to 20.8% in 2018 (“Youth and Tobacco Use,” n.d.). In a single year, the resulting increase of e-cigarette use has nearly doubled tobacco use among teens from 2.1 million in 2017 to 3.6 million in 2018 (“Youth and Tobacco Use,” n.d.).
Why the increase in e-cigarette use? The tobacco industry knows that if someone does not start smoking before the age of 18, the likelihood of them becoming a habitual tobacco user over the course of their lifetime drops immensely. As a result, they have spent many resources altering their brand to appeal to youth. This includes creating appealing flavors such as gummi bear, cotton candy, or peach, as well as juice names such as “dragon’s venom,” “thug juice,” or “kryptonite.” Using seemingly harmless or sweet flavoring coupled with an attractive brand name increases the overall appeal among teenagers.
Many teens are drawn to e-cigarette use because they feel it is not as harmful as other tobacco products. They do not have the action of actually burning tobacco like conventional cigarettes, which makes those products appear more harmful. Teens often associate e-cigarette use as being simply water vapor with few harmful side effects. However, e-cigarette vapor can oftentimes have a higher nicotine concentration than conventional cigarettes, as well as a slew of added harmful cancer-causing chemicals.
While tobacco has been recognized for years as a harmful substance, this is especially so for a developing brain. Adolescence is a time for massive brain maturation. During this time, areas of the brain involved in decision-making, memory, and risk/reward analysis are all under construction. The experiences a teen goes through in this time as well as the things they are putting in their body all mold these pathways and lay the foundation into adulthood. The brain is not fully matured until around the age of 25, and until then, many of these key brain regions are still easily molded. Use of tobacco during this time not only strengthens pathways for addiction but also negatively impacts attention, learning, and impulse regulation and control, as well as increases the risk for mood disorders later in life (“Know the Risks,” n.d.).
So, knowing what we know about tobacco use among teens, how can we prevent it? Regulation of the tobacco industry has had little effect, and campaigns such as D.A.R.E. or anti-smoking advertisements have even increased teen use in some cases due to inciting their curiosity (University of Georgia, 2007). Teens are constantly bombarded by peer influence and advertising while oftentimes having few resources to properly engage and fight these pressures. Parents and other caregivers have a number of options available to help their teens through these storms of influence:
- Talk to your teen, and talk to your teen early. Many adolescents are exposed to tobacco use from their peers as early as middle school. If they are already unfamiliar with the substance, there will be a lot of pressure to experiment due to the false information they will likely receive from those peers. Talking to your pre-teens as early as middle school about the facts of tobacco use will give them the resources needed to help fight the temptations. Ignoring or refusing to talk about the “elephant in the room” of tobacco use can oftentimes be interpreted as passive approval from the parent and increase chance of experimentation.
- Have open and honest conversations. Many parents falsely believe that talking to their teens about sensitive matters such as substance use or sex will only increase their likelihood of experimenting, especially if they, too, have struggled in the past or currently. This is simply not the case, and when done correctly, research has shown that early interventions from parents through an open conversation can decrease tobacco use among teens (Jaffe, 2011). For parents who have no tobacco use experience, frequent and open conversations can have positive effects. For parents who have past or current tobacco use experience, avoiding “war stories” and being open about their own struggles while actively trying to quit can also be just as positive.
- If your teen has experimented, avoid overreacting. Many teens will experiment with things they are not supposed to, and in most cases, this will not lead to habitual use. It can be easy as parents to shout at or scold our children quickly when something like substance use is revealed. Doing so can create a rift in communication and pull teens further into their experimentation. Rather, having an open conversation that is not judgmental, preachy, or hypocritical, but is focused on love and forgiveness, can be a much more positive curb to any continued experimentation.
Parents have enough to worry about with their teens in today’s world. Having the facts and resources to provide our teens with the skills necessary can help prevent harmful habits such as tobacco use. Parents and teens are reminded through the apostle Paul’s words in Scripture to remain faithful as the Lord remains faithful to us, even in the midst of the world’s temptation: “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:13).
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (n.d.). Youth and tobacco use. Retrieved https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/youth_data/tobacco_use/index.htm
- Jaffe, A. (2011) Talking to kids about teen smoking: How to do it right. Psychology Today. Retrieved https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/all-about-addiction/201106/talking-kids-about-teen-smoking-how-do-it-right
- Know the Risks (n.d.). Know the risks: E-cigarettes & young people. Retrieved https://e-cigarettes.surgeongeneral.gov/knowtherisks.html
- University of Georgia. “Why Some Anti-smoking Ads Succeed and Others Backfire.” ScienceDaily. 20 July 2007. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/07/070719170315.htm