Health: Advice on ... Smoking

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Smoking causes a range of serious health problems, yet nearly one in five 15-year-old girls continues to smoke regularly. Anne Schulthess explains what the dangers of smoking are and how to raise awareness to encourage young people to quit.

Q: How many young people smoke?

In the UK, about six per cent of 11-to 15-year-olds are regular smokers. Among 15-year-olds, about 19 per cent of girls and 12 per cent of boys smoke.

In this age group, teenage girls are the most likely to start smoking, due to the common myth that smoking keeps you slim. However, there is evidence to show that teenage girls who smoke actually have thicker waistlines. A teenager's social background also has a bearing on whether or not they smoke. Where both parents smoke, young people are four times more likely to start themselves.

The numbers of young smokers has been declining since the 1980s in line with the general population, but it is still a major issue.

Q: What are the dangers of smoking at a young age?

Smoking has a large impact on a teenager's developing body. If young people start smoking, their lungs may never develop properly and they are more likely to develop life-long diseases that can lead to difficulty breathing, nasty coughs and yellow phlegm. Cigarette smoke contains lead, which can also cause brain damage and slow down cognitive development.

If young people are substituting cigarettes for meals, they are starving their body of essential nutrients and will see some immediate effects such as yellow teeth and fingers, dry skin and spots and an overall bad odour.

Long-term health implications can include heart disease, lung cancer, Buerger's disease (which can cause blood clots and gangrene), stroke, impotence in men, difficulties conceiving, gum disease and tooth decay and a myriad of other cancers.

Q: What are the best ways of raising awareness of the dangers of smoking?

It is important to get the message across to young people that smoking isn't cool and that it kills people.

One fact that has a lot of impact is that there are more than 4,000 chemicals in cigarette smoke, but only three are listed on the packet.

Teenagers are often unaware of the influence the tobacco industry has, so inform them that the industry is taking advantage of young people by product placement in films and by paying movie stars - who teenagers often idolise - to smoke certain brands. A tobacco industry boss was once asked on ITV News if he smoked, and his reply was: "We don't smoke that sh*t, we just sell it. We reserve the right to smoke for the young, the poor, the black and the stupid." This line usually shocks young people and helps them to realise they are being conned.

Also encourage them to think about all the money they could save by not smoking. For example, if a young person bought 30 packs of cigarettes, that can equate to an Ipod. Similarly, 110 packs could get them a two-week holiday in Florida.

Image is also an important issue, especially for young girls. Our presentations have featured specialist ageing software, and we worked with producers from the TV show Britain's Next Top Model for a special charity shoot. Two of the models were made up to show the damaging effects smoking can have on the skin and body (see picture above), and the resulting pictures were shocking.

Q: What should you do if you're concerned about a young person's smoking habits?

Youth workers who want to encourage a young person to quit smoking should look for expert advice. Local NHS stop smoking services often have a dedicated youth adviser.

Our experience is that it is difficult to get young people to see their GP, so we would recommend that if they don't want to go to the GP or stop smoking service, then they should speak to a school nurse or a pharmacist.

Young people can also contact the Quitline on 0800 002 200 or email if they would like advice on quitting smoking.

- Anne Schulthess is head of youth services at Quit


- Quit is the independent UK charity that helps people stop smoking. Its youth section Quit Because has worked with more than one million young people.

- Additional advice for youth workers is available from NHS Smokefree (, Connexions ( and The National Youth Agency (

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