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Helping Kids Kick the Cigarette Habit

Young smokers struggle with adult-sized addictions

TUESDAY, Nov. 18, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Winter Mein of Salem, Ore., started smoking when she was 12 years old, bumming cigarettes off her friends while they hung out.

Now she's 19, and quitting the habit seems to her like one of those dreams that happens to other, better people.

"I'm addicted," Mein says, taking a drag and blowing the smoke high into the air. "There's really no point stopping. I tried three times, but the patches don't work and the gum tastes like crap."

It's that feeling of powerlessness that the American Cancer Society hopes to overcome every year during the Great American Smokeout, when all smokers are asked to hold off on their habit for 24 hours.

This year's event, scheduled for Nov. 20, can be a big step for teen smokers trying to find the strength to stop. It takes place during Lung Cancer Awareness Month.

"What it can do for a teenager is prove for them that it's possible to stop," says Tom Glynn, the cancer society's director of cancer science and trends. "Once you've stopped for 24 hours, it does empower you. You've shown yourself that it is possible."

One in four high school students in the United States is a smoker, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That's actually an improvement, marking the reversal of a dramatic increase in teen smoking through much of the 1990s. In 1997, 36 percent of high school students smoked cigarettes. Five years later, that number had dropped to 28 percent.

But experts and parents would like to see that number drop even further.

While high school students appear to be listening to antismoking messages, a new report finds those warnings aren't trickling down to students in middle school. The survey by the American Legacy Foundation found no "statistically significant" drop in smoking rates among students in grades six through eight.

Parents who want their children to stop smoking should first keep them from starting, Glynn says. "Once they've started, there is evidence to show that they become as quickly and deeply addicted as adults."

The best thing parents can do is be a non-smoking role model for their kids, Glynn says. If they do smoke, they can still be a role model by smoking outside the house and obeying clean indoor air laws.

Parents should encourage participation in after-school activities. And, although Glynn acknowledges the difficulty, he says parents also should discourage their children from hanging out with friends who smoke.

"The biggest predictor after parental smoking is having friends who smoke," he says. "If parents can encourage friendships with non-smokers, there's less chance the kid will take up smoking."

If your child is smoking, all is not lost. Studies show that three-quarters of teenagers who smoke say they would like to quit, Glynn says. "They want to quit, but it's usually not tomorrow," he says. "It's the next month or the next six months."

To help your teen quit, first take the child to the doctor for some help, Glynn says.

Over-the-counter nicotine replacements such as patches and gum aren't specifically approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for use with children. There have not been a sufficient number of clinical trials to prove they are safe and effective for young people.

A physician can prescribe medications like a nicotine inhaler or spray, although even those treatments don't always work. "Even with adults, we're talking 20 to 25 percent effectiveness," Glynn says.

Parents should ask if the school their child attends has a quit-smoking program. There also are Internet sites dedicated to helping young smokers quit, as well as telephone help lines.

Above all, parents must be supportive, especially if their child isn't able to quit the first time.

"For most people, stopping takes multiple tries," Glynn says. "If your kid starts smoking again, it doesn't mean it's give-up time. That's part of the natural cycle. Quite a few people have to try five or six times before they can give it up."

For her part, Mein swings between indifference and despair about her habit. She smokes a pack and a half a day usually, and two and a half packs if she's feeling depressed.

Reflecting on her smoking, Mein first says there's no point in denying herself a cigarette, especially when quitting is so hard.

"I don't really have a fear of cancer or death," she says. "I'm going to die sometime."

But talking a little longer, thinking about the times she's tried to quit, Mein softens her view.

"I don't think I should do it. I mean, I'm 19. I still have a whole life to go. It's just so hard to stop."

More information

For tips on avoiding or quitting smoking, visit this U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. For more on how easily young smokers can get hooked on nicotine, check with the Center for the Advancement of Health.

SOURCES: Winter Mein, 19, Salem, Ore.; Tom Glynn, director, cancer science and trends, American Cancer Society
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