How do children start smoking?

Science has studied and provided several models to understand children smoking behavior. If we want to do something to prevent kids from smoking we must have some idea of how it works. Explaining human behavior isn’t easy as it depends on many factors. One model has identified four to five stages until the child becomes a dependent smoker. There are social and psychological risks that are critical to the child’s smoking behavior.

The first stage is called Preparation. In this stage, a child forms positive attitudes and beliefs about smoking. When a child grows up she will look up to what the mother and father, sister, or brother do at home. They are her closest model. We learn by example from others. If they smoke it’s easier for the child to assume that's a natural habit. But some kids whose parents do not smoke will start smoking just the same. Maybe they're curious. Or because the idea of doing something grownups don't want them to do is appealing to them. Other kids will just be imitating adults' behavior because they want to act or look like an adult. Other such as peers, actors, and pop stars can lead the child to emulate their behavior and try smoking.

In the second stage, the child will make the first try. So this stage is called Trial. In the story, I wrote - yes, I created a little book about smoking prevention - the curious boy, is desperate to try a cigar. He will not give up until he does it although his parents told him that cigar smoking is dangerous. I created a lot of drama around this episode because, in my opinion, it is very important that a child does not make this one try. Nicotine has an immediate effect on the brain so the child can keep smoking to get that reward. But can be a terrible experience. In fact, the first cigarette I smoked wasn’t a good experience. Probably a child will cough a lot and feel pain or burning in the throat and lungs. Some will feel sick to their stomachs or even throw up. But organisms respond differently to an individual’s motivations and evaluations are a mystery. One will never know if that experience will determine the abandonment of cigarettes or if it will fuel the child’s will to go on trying. I must say I did not give cigarettes up after that first one. I gave it some more tries. 

So, after the first trial, the child will start to smoke sporadic cigarettes. This stage is called Experimentation. Now and then the child will smoke a cigar or two. At this stage the influence of the group of friends is determinant. Smoking can play an important role in friendships. It can create a bond between smokers. If the child has friends who smoke probably they will not discourage the child to quit and she will feel pressure to keep the habit as breaking free might be considered criticism. The kind of environment surrounding the child is also important. Television shows and films have built up positive images of smoking for many years. Advertising promoted smoking and made positive associations between cigarettes and brands. Or if there are no rules against smoking in the private or public space the child circulates or if the information on smoking dangers is sparse or inexistent in school or other institutions. At last, if the child has access to cigarettes easily. These are the risk factors. If a child smokes a cigarette per week she has reached the fourth stage. This stage is called Habituation. Generally, if a child is on regular consumption one must expect that she has friends that smoke too. That group of friends approves of smoking behavior. On the other hand, this child has a low ability to refuse a cigar. She perceives that smoking is good for her somehow. It gives her social status, it relaxes her, helps her deal with stress and fears, and it goes along with her image whatever. If she lives in an environment where smoking is not restricted or if in school there is tolerance to smoking behavior and lack of information and campaigns on smoking dangers, these are risk factors.

When this child enters the fifth stage she is dependent on consumption. This stage is called Maintenance. The child is hooked to tobacco because it has nicotine. This substance causes addiction, both of body and mind. She stops and she'll get withdrawal symptoms like irritability, snappiness, and lack of concentration. So the child smokes another cigarette. But nicotine also causes tolerance and that’s why she will need to increase the number of cigarettes to get the same effect. It’s easy for one to be addicted and it’s hard to give it up as it causes on giving up smoking. It also causes a social dependence as the child or youngster will create a bond with the group of smokers. By this stage, smoking will be associated with other activities like going out. The child is conditioned so when she thinks of going out she needs to have a cigarette. If you try to quit you'll be punished

Another model is called The theory of rational action. The child’s intention to smoke is determined both by attitude and subjective norms. Attitude: it represents the sentiment (positive or negative) for behavior, for example, smoking is bad. The attitude is influenced by the child's beliefs about the consequences of this behavior: favorable or unfavorable. The subjective norm: is the child’s perception of whether most people who are important to her think that she should or should not smoke. This norm measures the degree of social pressure to perform or not this behavior.

The conclusion is that children are more likely to smoke when they have a favorable attitude toward their achievements. And when there is support for their achievement by people children consider important. A child smoker has a positive attitude about the act of smoking. A child that does not smoke doesn’t. She has also had a more negative subjective norm regarding smoking regularly due to parents, siblings, doctors, and teachers that are non-smokers. According to this model promoting positive attitudes towards non-smoking and the development of a subjective norm unfavorable to smoking has a preventive effect on tobacco consumption.

Source for scientific facts: Bases científicas para a prevenção do consumo de tabaco na escola, José Precioso and Manuel Macedo, Instituto de Educação e Psicologia, Universidade do Minho, Braga, Portugal



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