Teenagers are usually so curious about the world, they're willing to try everything--even smoking. While many have already learned that smoking is never good for one's health, teens tend to underestimate how addictive smoking is. A survey, for instance, showed that only 5% of teen smokers said they expected to be smoking in five years. However, eight years later, 75% were still smoking.
Dan Romer, Ph.D., research director of the Institute for Adolescent Risk Communication at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center, stated that today’s epidemic is fueled by misunderstandings and misinformation. While cigarette packs show the risks of smoking such as lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema, complications with pregnancy, and more, these have not stopped teens from trying tobacco products.
The tobacco industry has created youth smoking prevention programs, claiming that they are designed to prevent teens from becoming smokers. However, previous reports have found that these programs are ineffective and do more harm than good. According to HealthDay, a leading producer of evidence-based current health news reports, the risks presented in cigarette packs are practically invisible to teens because they are aware of the supposed “benefits” of smoking. Tobacco companies spend billions on ads promoting cigarettes as the key to a fun and relaxing lifestyle.
Also, researchers discovered that teens are rarely deterred from smoking just by learning about the risks of tobacco. "You can't tell young people they're going to get sick, because they think they're invulnerable. But when you start telling them they're being used by adults -- that really gets through,” Ken August, a spokesman for the tobacco control program for the California Department of Health, said.
Teen smoking remains a huge challenge for governments and organizations. Encouraging teens to stop using tobacco also means addressing why they do this in the first place.
Teen Smoking in Numbers
Most adult smokers today started smoking when they were young. In 1996-1997, 28% of adolescents reported smoking in the past month. That number has been decreasing. In 2014, only 8% admitted to doing the same. 2016 and 2018 saw 6% and 5%, respectively. Though that seems promising, the US Department of Health and Human Services stated that approximately 4.9 million middle and high school students were current tobacco users in 2018.
Among all teen smokers, it was revealed that white teens are more likely to smoke than their black or Hispanic peers. Statistics presented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that about 12 of every 100 middle school students (12.5%) and about 31 of every 100 high school students (31.2%) reported using a tobacco product in 2019. In the same year, it was reported that 4 of every 100 middle school students (4.0%) and nearly 11 of every 100 high school students (10.8%) used two or more tobacco products in the past 30 days.
The CDC also showed that about 12 of every 100 middle school students (11.5%) and about 30 of every 100 high school students (29.9%) said they had ever tried two or more tobacco products. Among all high school students in 2019, 31.2% of high school students use any tobacco product, 27.5% use e-cigarettes, 7.6% use cigars, 5.8% use cigarettes, 4.8% use smokeless tobacco, 3.4% use hookah, and 1.1% use pipe tobacco.
Tobacco product use starts and is established primarily during adolescence. Almost 9 out of 10 cigarette smokers first tried cigarette smoking by age 18, and 98% first try smoking by age 26. In the US alone, about 1,600 youth under 18 years of age smoke their first cigarette every day, while 200 youth under 18 years of age become daily cigarette smokers.
The rise in teen smoking is also associated with the flavorings in tobacco products, which makes them more appealing to the youth. The CDC reported that 67% of high school students and 49% of middle school students who used tobacco products in the past 30 days in 2018 reported using a flavored tobacco product. At the same time, recent increases in the use of e-cigarettes are a result of an increase in tobacco product use among youth. From only 3.6 million in 2018, the number of middle and high school students using e-cigarettes rose to 5.4 million in 2019—a difference of about 1.8 million youth.
Why Quitting is Hard
According to MedBroadCast, an online site that features in-depth articles on drugs, conditions, and treatments with up-to-date health news, health tips, and medical research, several factors influence teens to smoke. For instance, most teens are subjected to peer pressure, forcing them to smoke as it gives them a sense of belonging. They use tobacco as a coping mechanism for the stress they experience at such a young age. Media also plays a huge role in this. Most of the time, teens learn smoking because of the movies and television shows where actors smoke. They want to emulate these actors’ behaviors.
While it’s easy to say one will quit smoking, it’s extremely hard to do, especially for those who have been using tobacco for many years. Nicotine, the chemical present in all tobacco products, is the reason addiction starts. It temporarily makes one feel calm and satisfied. At the same time, they can feel more alert and focused. As they smoke more often, their body asks for more nicotine to feel good. Eventually, they don’t feel normal without it.
"From a scientific standpoint, nicotine is just as hard, or harder to quit than heroin … but people don't recognize that," Dr. Neil Benowitz, a nicotine researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, said.
Nicotine acts on the chemistry of the brain and the central nervous system. It also works like other addictive drugs. It gives smokers a little bit of an adrenaline rush, enough to speed up the heart and raise blood pressure. Smokers usually feel uncomfortable and crave cigarettes when their body doesn’t get nicotine. This is called withdrawal.
Dr. Benowitz stated that nicotine releases dopamine, known as the feel-good neurotransmitter. When a person stops smoking, they have a deficiency of dopamine release, which causes a state of dysphoria – they feel anxious or depressed.
There are so many issues and topics that need to be addressed to encourage young people to stop smoking. The best thing that we can do is to educate them at an early age and influence them with good habits.