Kids under the age of 18 are more likely than those in any other age group to start using tobacco. Of the 42 million Americans who smoke, 90 percent of them had their first cigarette by the age of 18, according to a new report from the U.S. Surgeon General.
Unfortunately, many of these now otherwise healthy kids are setting themselves up for serious health challenges in the future. In California, 13.8 percent of middle school and high school students smoked in 2010, according to the latest California Student Tobacco Survey report. In San Francisco County, the rate was 16.9 percent.
That’s why the United Health Foundation is once again sponsoring Kick Butts Day today — a day devoted to empowering America’s youths to be advocates for their own health. As a physician, I have seen too many people who suffer the serious health problems that result from their addiction to tobacco, including lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other deadly diseases. So it’s critically important to raise awareness about the dangers of smoking among youths in our state and across the country.
Kick Butts Day is a perfect time to talk to your children about the dangers of tobacco use and how tobacco marketing appears to make smoking appear acceptable and appealing when in fact it’s addictive and deadly.
Although overall smoking rates in the United States have declined in recent years, new products geared toward young smokers are creating new challenges. For example, the newest smokeless products dissolve like mints and take away the undesirable need to spit, making them appealing to kids who want to hide tobacco use. New cigarette-sized cigars use candy or fruit flavorings that are attractive to kids. And perhaps most troubling are the new e-cigarettes, which come in bright colors and various candy flavors.
A recent study found that the use of e-cigarettes doubled among middle and high school students between 2011 and 2012, and kids who used e-cigarettes were more likely to smoke real cigarettes and less likely to quit than those who did not use the devices.
Parents are key to helping prevent and stop youth tobacco use. Be on the lookout for warning signs of tobacco use, such as friends who use tobacco products, the smell of smoke in hair or clothes, and kids who start to use mouthwash or breath mints more frequently or suddenly make excuses to go outside. And set a good example. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, try to quit. Don’t smoke in front of your kids, and whether you smoke or not, make sure your home and car are smoke-free.
The goal of Kick Butts Day is to create a tobacco-free generation, so we need to take action now. Tobacco is taking a devastating toll on our youths. It’s time to face the dangers of youth tobacco use and help our kids truly Kick Butts.
James Korkos, M.D., is the market medical director for UnitedHealthcare of California.