Following a decline, since the mid to late 1990s, in the number of young people smoking, more recent reports have indicated that these numbers are now, once again, beginning to rise. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), figures from a 2005 study indicate that 23% of high school students had smoke in the month prior, which shows an increase from 21.9% in a 2003 study (Family First Aid, 2000-2006). This figure alone is enough to prompt fears that smoking could begin to grip our nation’s youth, irrespective of the amount of anti-smoking education that they are presented with from a very early age. The health risks associated with smoking are palpable: there are significant links to an increased likelihood of contracting cancer, heart and lung disease as well as less well-known connotations with Multiple Sclerosis (Giovannoni, 2011). Smoking also stunts growth and prevents young people from developing at a normal rate.
The objective of this paper is to explore the attitudes and experiences of young people with regard to smoking and to decipher why the number of teenagers who smoke tobacco is rising once again. During the course of this paper, I will endeavour to question what is prompting this resurgence in numbers and exploring some of the factors that seem to induce higher numbers of young smokers; I will examine the attitudes of young people with regard to their smoking habits and question why young people are still smoking even in the face of overwhelming negative evidence; I will discuss the experiences of young people in terms of how and why they began smoking and why they continue to do so, and I will also discuss the experiences of young people who have tried to quit or would like to quit.
The effects of smoking on young people are an area which is increasingly being assessed whereas the effects on adults are an area of study which has been monitored completely. Most studies conclusively state that the main effect of smoking in young people is the respiratory difficulties it provides. The term ‘young people’ is generally referred to throughout studies to remonstrate the ages between ten and twenty – with anyone over that age defined as an ‘adult smoker’ instead. The various studies discuss smoking and passive smoking as being two separate entities – the former being the focus for this paper. Passive smoking is also of significance but the questions would be shifted away from a focus on the young people and more to those around them. The aforementioned CDC study discussed some of the key factors behind why young people are smoking and list the following as being major reasons: low socioeconomic status, use or approval of smoking by older siblings or peers, smoking by parents, the availability and price of tobacco, lack of parent support or involvement, and a low self-image or self-esteem (Family First Aid, 2000-2006). These factors are derived from data collected from young people themselves which gives the information a degree of credibility and begins to answer the question concerning why young people are beginning to smoke. The website, Teen Drug Abuse adds to these factors by suggesting that teenagers “like to act as if they are someone special or dangerous” and that smoking has that added allure to it (Teen Drug Abuse, 2010). These factors are echoed throughout research concerned with why young people are smoking and it would seem that young people today are suffering from low self-esteem and a significant decrease in parental attention, leading them to develop dangerous habits in order to gain more attention and/or to reassure themselves that they are ‘fitting in’ to their peer group.
In his book, Tobacco: a reference handbook, Harold Cordry discusses another CDC study which discusses the types of effects that smoking has on young people’s health. As a common theme, most studies seem to focus largely on the short-term health effects that young people will suffer with the suggestion being that in the short-term; smoking can increase respiratory problems, cause nicotine dependency and increase the young person’s chances of becoming involved with harder illegal substances (Cordry, 2001). However, upon exploring some of the experiences and attitudes that young people have towards smoking, it becomes clearer that simply just lecturing them on the negative health consequences of smoking is not enough: in another CDC study using focus groups to derive information, the comment was made that “Overall, the teens demonstrated remarkably detailed knowledge of the health effects of smoking.” (McKenna & Williams, 2004). The implication behind this is that young people are not ignorant of the risks but are still choosing to smoke anyway suggesting that education is not enough to discourage young people from smoking. The focus group also indicated that teenagers, although verging on adult understanding, still lacked experience and tended to rely heavily on their immediate experiences or those of their friends and family, meaning that they tended to have a more ‘black and white’ view (McKenna & Williams, 2004) – implying that young people are unable to contextualise as extensively as adults. The suggestion here is that young people are still smoking despite being aware of the health risks, presumably on the understanding that they are still young enough to quit or to limit the long-term health effects, but this is not true. Other members of the focus group said that their experiences of trying to quit were problematic but that it seemed as though the teens were keen to “assert their independence from adults” and that smoking seemed to represent an essence of ‘taking control’ over their own lives, health and decisions (McKenna & Williams, 2004). In practice, teenagers seem to be keen to present themselves as being ‘old enough’ and ‘capable enough’ to make decisions that will affect their life, independently of their parents. By contrast with the earlier CDC discussion, it seems that young people are smoking more as a response to what could be inferred as too much parental input and control, as opposed to the lack thereof previous stated.
A common conclusion as to why young people start to smoke at all is the view that youthful arrogance omits us from being able to fully comprehend the health implications attached to smoking (Help with Smoking, 2005-2010). This certainly echoes the CDC report which indicates that although the young people are fully aware of the health implications, they continue to smoke regardless. The implication of this is a level of naivety which lures teenagers into assuming grown up roles whilst still operating mentally as children. Despite teenagers demonstrating some experience, their overall life experience severely limits them from making strong life choices that will benefit them fully in the long run – such as the choice to not start smoking, especially if their peers are doing so. The attitudes of young people are generally shown as being reckless in the face of desperation: so keen are they to establish their independence as young adults that they are willing to jeopardise their future health simply, it would seem, to prove a point. This attitude is a petty one but, unfortunately, would seem to reflect the majority of young people in modern society who lack the fundamental adult maturity that matches their adult appearance.
Further research should be carried out into how best to prevent young people from starting to smoke in the first place. Simply understanding their motivations is not enough and we must begin to implicate some strategies which will curtail the rising numbers of young people who are beginning to smoke. Whilst education has proven to make some headway into limiting the rise in these numbers (Elders, 1994), it has also been demonstrably proven to not have an effect on preventing smokers from starting on a larger scale, and so research must be carried out to fill the current gap in the academic arena which help to prevent young people from starting to smoke at all. Furthermore, research must be more closely carried out with regard to how young people are quitting smoking – during this paper, only one reference was made to quitting and that it was “problematic” indicating that not enough is being done to provide young smokers with the support and environment needed to wean them off tobacco.
Cordry, H.V., 2001. Tobacco: a reference handbook. California: ABC-CLIO.
Elders, J.M., 1994. Preventing Tobacco Use Among Young People: A Report of the Surgeon General. USA: DIANE Publishing.
Family First Aid, 2000-1006. Teen Smoking – statistics and prevention. [online] Available at:
Giovannoni, Gavin, 2011. Smoking and multiple sclerosis: an updated meta-analysis. Multiple Sclerosis Research, [blog] April 12, Available at:
Help With Smoking, 2005-2010. Why Do People Smoke? Reasons why people start and continue to smoke. [online] Available at:
McKenna, J.W. & Williams, K.N., n.d. Crafting effective tobacco counter-advertisements: lessons from a failed campaign directed at teenagers. In: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ed. 2004. Measuring the Health Behaviour of Adolescents: the youth risk behaviour surveillance system and recent reports on high-risk adolescents. USA: DIANE Publishing Company, pp. 85-89.
Teen Drug Abuse, 2010. Teens and Smoking Tobacco. [online] Available at: