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This is an online resource for the book The Teenager's Guide to the Real World by Marshall Brain, ISBN 1-9657430-3-9. The online resources are offered as a free supplement to the book. They help you access the huge library of material for teenager's available on the Web. For more information on the book please click here.

For Teenagers: Understanding Smoking

If you are a teenager, chances are that you have considered taking up smoking at some point. About 3,000 teenagers pick up the smoking habit each day in America, or roughly one million new teenage smokers per year. About 60% of all high school students try smoking by the time they are seniors. That means lots of new smokers, and it also means there's a good chance that you or one of your friends is smoking right now.

What I would like to do in this article is help you, as a teenager, to understand why so many teenagers start smoking. If you understand why teenagers start smoking, chances are you won't smoke. It is sort of like a magic trick. The first time you see the trick it looks really cool and mysterious. But then if someone tells you how it's done it's not mysterious at all anymore and the trick loses a lot of its appeal. Smoking works the same way.

The Pill

Imagine you and I having the following conversation:
    Me: Hi, Howís it going?

    You: Fine.

    Me: Hey, Iíve got this new thing Iíd like you to try.

    You: Tell me more.

    Me: Well, itís a pill I think you will want to start taking.

    You: What does this pill do?

    Me: First of all, it is a known carcinogen. It is extremely likely you will get lung cancer due to this pill. It is going to cause a lot of other short- and long-term health problems as well. It will make your breath, hair and clothes stink. It will make a mess of your car. You will take this pill about 40 times a day. This pill, by the way, is addictive. Once you start taking it, it will be extremely difficult to stop. And a supply of pills will cost about $2 to $4 a day, depending on where you buy them.

    You: I have to pay for this??? Are you kidding??? This pill sounds absolutely disgusting!!! Why in the world would I want to take it???

    Me: It will make you think you are cool.

If I offered you a pill like that, would you take it?

Why?

Let's start at the beginning - why do teenagers start smoking? If you ask teenagers, here are the four most common reasons:
  1. Group acceptance - if their friends smoke, many teenagers will begin smoking simply to maintain their acceptance within the group. AKA "peer pressure".
  2. Image projection - there is definitely an "image" attached to smoking by advertising. For women it is one of sexiness and desirability, and for men it is one of rugged individualism, fun or coolness. If a teenager buys into that image, then smoking begins.
  3. Rebellion - many teenagers take up smoking because they know it annoys/bothers/infuriates their parents and other adults. There is also a certain element of "independence" or "doing what is not allowed" or "walking on the wild side" worked in as well.
  4. Adult aspirations - some teenagers believe that by smoking they are acting like an adult. If the teenager is raised in a community where most of the adults smoke, then this is perhaps a logical conclusion.
There is one other factor at work as well, and most teenagers have no idea it is happening. This factor is the teenage mind itself. The following graph is interesting:

What this graph shows is the age at which people begin smoking. On this graph you can see that some 11 and 12 year-olds start, but in general the ages 13 through 18 are the big "start smoking" years - nearly everyone who starts smoking starts between these ages. Here is the important thing to notice: No one starts smoking after age 20 or so. That is, if you can make it to age 20 without smoking, you will never start. This is an extremely interesting fact of life. No adult ever makes the decision to smoke. The question to ask yourself as a teenager is "why is that?"

The Adult Mind

The "teenage mind" is much different from the "adult mind." All teenagers eventually figure this out - that is the point at which they start to become adults. But until a teenager turns on his or her adult brain and begins thinking like an adult, he or she is stuck with a teenage brain. The key concept here is that "being a teenager" is a temporary state meant to be outgrown. In other words, "being a teenager" can be equated to "being a child" at some level. The idea is for a teenager to outgrow teendom and become an adult. Once you understand that, you are on your way. But before that happens your "teenage mind" tends to be extremely non-rational and very reactive. Every single person who starts smoking is doing it because they are using their "teenage mind" to make the decision, rather than an adult mind.

You can understand the difference between the teenage mind and the adult mind by looking at these two examples:

  • Teenage mind: "A couple of my friends have started smoking. I better start too or they will think I am uncool." (Reactive)
  • Adult mind: "A couple of my friends have started smoking. Do I want to start smoking?" (Thinking)
The difference is that the teenage mind reacts, while the adult mind asks and considers options. You, as a teenager, are a blank slate. You, and only you, get to determine exactly how your life will turn out. You get to choose exactly what appears on your slate by making choices from a nearly infinite pool. In other words, you get to design your life. You get to decide on things like:
  • Who will I marry?
  • How many children will I have?
  • How will I dress?
  • Where will I live?
  • What kind of car will I drive?
  • Will I go to college, and if so which one will I attend?
  • What will be my major in college?
  • What will I choose for my career?
  • How much money will I make, and why?
  • What will be my attitude toward life?
  • Will I smoke? Will I take drugs?
  • And so on...
However, you only get to choose if you think about these things and make conscious choices.

Addiction

The problem for many teenagers, and for nearly every teenager who smokes, is that the choices are not conscious decisions - they are reactions. You can go back and change many of these decisions later, but smoking is not one of them because smoking is addictive.

This fact of life helps answer the following important question: If no adult using their adult brain would ever start smoking, then why do you see millions of adults smoking everywhere you go? The reason is simple: Every adult smoker started smoking as a teenager because of a silly decision made by their teenage brain, but once addicted to cigarettes it is impossible to stop! That is the only reason you see adult smokers. No one in their right mind (that excludes, of course, a teenager using a teenager mind) would smoke if they didn't have to. But cigarettes are highly addictive so adult smokers have to smoke. Here are the four main reasons adult smokers would love to quit smoking:

  1. Smoking has serious health consequences. On average, each minute of smoking reduces a person's life expectancy by a minute. When you consider that a two-pack-a-day smoker consumes on the order of 600,000 cigarettes in a lifetime, and it takes three to five minutes to smoke a cigarette, this is a significant factor.
  2. Smoking is addictive. Once you get hooked it is very difficult to stop. Once hooked, you have to stop every half hour or so and smoke another cigarette. You have no choice!
  3. Smoking is extremely expensive. Cigarettes range in price from a nickel to a dime each, so if you are consuming 40 a day the cost averages about $1,000 per year. There must be a better way to spend $1,000!
  4. Smoking has effects on personal hygiene. Cigarettes are messy and they make your hair, clothes and breath stink.
As a teenager, with a teenager mind, you may think that you are somehow immune to the addictive power of smoking. Somehow you will not become an addict. All you have to do is look at the millions and millions of adult smokers in America today - all of them thought exactly the same thing. You are no different.

The Pill

Another way to understand smoking is to imagine that you and I having the following conversation:
    Me: Hi, Howís it going?

    You: Fine.

    Me: Hey, Iíve got this new thing Iíd like you to try.

    You: Tell me more.

    Me: Well, itís a pill I think you will want to start taking.

    You: What does this pill do?

    Me: First of all, it is a known carcinogen. It is extremely likely you will get lung cancer due to this pill. It is going to cause a lot of other short- and long-term health problems as well. It will make your breath, hair and clothes stink. It will make a mess of your car. You will take this pill about 40 times a day. This pill, by the way, is addictive. Once you start taking it, it will be extremely difficult to stop. And a supply of pills will cost about $2 to $4 a day, depending on where you buy them.

    You: I have to pay for this??? Are you kidding??? This pill sounds absolutely disgusting!!! Why in the world would I want to take it???"

    Me: It will make you think you are cool.

    You: Oh, well, why didnít you say so? Sign me up! Where can I get some???

If I offered you a pill like that, would you take it? Yes you would, if you are using your "teenage mind", because being cool is important to you. But look at the price you have to pay. "Being cool" won't matter nearly so much to you once you turn on your adult mind.

Plus, smoking isn't nearly as discrete as taking a pill - everyone knows that you are a smoker. Unfortunately, for every adult who sees you it's like wearing a big "I'm a Stupid Teenager!" sign around your neck. With a teenager mind you can't see that. In fact, if you are "rebellious" your teenager mind is thinking that is exactly what you want to say. However, your adult brain will turn on in a year or two. If you start smoking as a teenager then you are going to be stuck with an addictive habit that is disgusting, expensive, unhealthy and unwanted.

If you are considering smoking, here is something to try: think about waiting until you are 20 to start using cigarettes. They will still be there - cigarettes are never going away. See what you think about them at that point. You will be amazed!

Go to the Table of Contents for The Teenager's Guide to the Real World.


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Keywords: teenagers, teenager, teens, teen, adolescents, adolescent, parents, parent