Our girls know that smoking is bad. Yet even though our daughters (and sons) have plenty of info about tobacco’s serious health risks, smoking rates remain high. Girls are now nearly as likely to smoke as boys, and by high school, a staggering 23% of our kids are smoking. The consequences are grim: nearly 90% of adult smokers report that they began smoking before the age of 18.
I’ve heard plenty from girls and parents about the struggle to stay away from smoking, because I work with the girl-led tobacco-free program oriGENal voice in Austin, TX. Girls admit that they’re still swayed by the belief that smoking will keep the pounds away while making them feel grownup and independent. Cigarette companies capitalize on these notions, blanketing ads with images of slim, beautiful young women who seem powerful and stylish. Girls also believe they can quit whenever they want in spite of mountains of evidence that nicotine addiction is very hard to overcome.
Ads for the latest girl-aimed effort, Camel No. 9, promise a “Light and Luscious” experience amid curvy pink script on a chic black background. While company officials claim the cigarettes are aimed at women, not girls, promotional items like bracelets, cell phone jewelry, and press-on tattoos suggest otherwise. Brands such as Virginia Slims, Capri, and Misty market exclusively to females (with cigarettes labeled “slims” or “lights”) and it pays off: one study found that six years after the female-targeted campaigns began, smoking among 12-year-old girls zoomed up by 110 percent.
We know smoking kills—here in Texas alone, 158,000 girls under age 18 are likely to die prematurely as a result of daily smoking. We can fight back by taking the following steps to turn around the deadly trend of girls and smoking.
- Draw out your daughter about why she’s attracted to smoking. If she hopes smoking will keep weight off, assure her that you understand the pressures she faces about body size. Offer alternative solutions to her concerns—like a pattern of nutritious eating and enjoyable exercise that would enhance anyone’s health. And give her the facts: studies show smoking actually doesn’t keep weight off, and a recent University of Kansas study found female smokers were at risk of gaining weight because they tend to eat badly and avoid exercise.
- Share info about smoking’s long-term risks. Tweens and teens often focus on short-term outcomes, and chatting—not lecturing!—about smoking-related illness and nicotine addiction can be useful. Ask her opinions about manipulative cigarette company advertising toward females—chances are she’ll have plenty to say!
- Consider starting a girl-directed tobacco-free group. Anti-smoking messages from peers are often much more effective, and girls thrive when they’re in charge of giving healthy advice. In our oriGENal voice program, middle-school and high-school girls engaged hundreds of peers in smoking education measures while creating tobacco-free presentations for the media and city officials.
- If you smoke, quit now. And even as you are quitting, continue to express your disapproval of smoking and be candid about how hard it is to quit. Consider supporting anti-smoking efforts of organizations such as the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and the American Cancer Society.
- Support measures that increase your girl’s self-esteem. Girls with poor body images—a leading cause of low self-esteem for girls—are more likely to start smoking. Get your daughter into a local program that focuses on boosting her confidence, critical thinking skills, and goal-setting abilities.
By simply engaging her in conversations about smoking and its real-life results, you’ll be taking an important first step to prevent teen smoking. With the help of supportive parents, educators, and peers, we can ensure that many more girls will grow up healthy and tobacco-free.
Find tips for talking about smoking at www.genaustin.org.