How to talk to kids about cigarettes and vapes, following Rishi Sunak’s smoke-free generation plans

Stopping the nation from smoking has long been a top priority for medical experts, families and governments, and PM Rishi Sunak has made his plans for the issues clear.

At the 2023 Conservative Party Conference, Sunak said that the legal age for buying tobacco should rise every year from those born in 2009 in a bid to “try and stop teenagers taking up cigarettes in the first place”.

He said: “A 14-year-old today will never legally be sold a cigarette” under new legislation he is proposing for England.

The Prime Minister also said more must be done to “restrict the availability” of vapes to children, but what can be done by parents in the meantime?

Here are the conversations to have with your children…

The dangers of smoking

“Starting smoking and vaping at a young age can have serious and long-lasting health consequences,” explains Dr Chun Tang, medical director and GP at Pall Mall Medical.

Nicotine is particularly harmful to developing brains. Young people are more vulnerable to nicotine addiction, which can lead to a lifetime of tobacco dependence. Nicotine impacts cognitive function and memory, potentially affecting academic performance.

“Aside from the detrimental effect on cognitive ability as outlined above, smoking is, of course, a leading cause of various health problems, including lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and many others,” he says.

Smoking during adolescence can also interfere with the growth and development of the lungs, leading to reduced lung function. This can result in breathing difficulties and decreased physical performance.”

The dangers of vaping

Vaping isn’t a safe alternative, yet he sweet-smelling, plastic steam machines are rife.

“Vaping is a relatively new phenomenon, and the long-term health effects are still not fully understood,” says Tang. “There is ongoing research to assess the potential long-term risks, including the development of chronic health conditions.”

Vaping has been associated with various adverse health effects, including lung injuries, respiratory problems, and cardiovascular issues, he notes. “Some of the chemicals found in vaping aerosols can be harmful when inhaled into the lungs.

“If a smoker takes approximately 15 puffs of a cigarette before putting it out, then we can safely assume that a 600-puff disposable vape is equivalent to around two packs of cigarettes.

“Some reports suggest young people can get through as many as 7 vapes a week, the equivalent of 14 packets of cigarettes.

“That is an enormous amount of nicotine and so we can expect to see the health risks posed by nicotine to be [more] exacerbated in vapers than smokers – which could be severely impacting cognitive function and affecting academic performance.”

It’s essential, he says, for parents, educators, and healthcare professionals “to educate young people about the potential risks of vaping and smoking and provide support and resources for those who want to quit”.

Don’t lecture them

Try to be open and curious rather than defensive and angry if your child is smoking or vaping.

Dr Kerry Irving, senior clinical psychologist at online mental health platform Kooth, says: “Approach any conversation to understand why the young person smokes or vapes rather than to lecture, as the latter can cause people to shut down.”

Consider available supportThere may be resources online and in person that might help your child, from the NHS to TikTok creators tracking their quitting journey.

“Suggest accessing external support – encourage the young person to see their GP or to make use of some of the free Stop Smoking initiatives online or in your local community,” Irving says.

Be sympathetic to relapse

Expect wobbles. If your teen or child is quitting smoking or vaping try to stop accept that overcoming an addiction is not easy and recovery is not linear.

“Relapses are an important part of changing any behaviour long term,” says Irving.

“You can help the young person learn from these by gently encouraging them to reflect on what went wrong and helping them plan for how to try again.”

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