Why do teenagers smoke?

Smoking: love it or hate it? It’s hard not to realise that it can do serious damage to your health, and is the single most cause of death in the US – and the death usually isn’t quick and painless, either! But this begs the question: why do so many teenagers continue to start smoking? They’re aware of the risks, and are told how difficult it is to quit…but they just don’t seem to listen.

According to the World Health Organisation, around 1.3 billion people smoke worldwide, and tobacco alone has been held responsible for around 6 million deaths per year. Out of all diseases, smoking itself has been found to cause the most death and disability, and kills up to half of its users. So why do people still do it?

As a 16 year old student, I am surrounded by all different types of teenagers. Although they are all very different people, I can imagine many of them have quite similar opinions and motives, which could suggest why they choose to take up smoking.

As many people who have struggled to quite smoking will probably tell you: nicotine is not to be underestimated. It is believed to bring feelings of pleasure, to suppress the appetite, and sometimes even relieve stress. It has been found to increase the levels of¬†dopamine¬†in parts of the brain – a neurotransmitter that produces feelings of pleasure and reward (according to scientists, dopamine has also been found to be released by the hypothalamus when one is in love). Now, at first this may seem like a good thing…but when you’re trying to quit, it’s likely to have quite the opposite effect. However, when experimenting with tobacco, teens don’t often consider how hard it’s going to be to quit. In fact, most don’t even seem to think they’ll get addicted in the first place!

A common misconception is that all teens start smoking in order to ‘look cool’, to ‘fit in’, or simply because of peer pressure. Whilst true in many cases, this is not always the reason.

Most teenagers originally start smoking out of curiosity. Many of them are still trying to find themselves and realise what they like and dislike, and smoking is one way in which they can do this. However, because of the dopamine received after they initially try smoking, most feel inclined to do it again. Before they know it, they’re craving more and more nicotine.

Many teenagers also decide to take up smoking as a way to ‘rebel’ against their parents, or to make themselves feel more mature and ‘grown up’. As they usually have more freedom from their parents around this age, they are no longer being watched or told what to do all the time. As smoking is somewhat taboo, doing it without their parents consent can make teens feel more in control, and more independent.

As the media continues to put an increased pressure on teens (especially females) to look a certain way and copy models on the front of magazines, many of them turn to smoking as a way to try and lose weight – it’s not surprising that a massive 30% more teenage girls are now smoking than 10 years ago!

Finally, some teens also try smoking in the hopes that it will help them to cope better with stress and make them feel a little more relaxed. Many teenagers feel as if no one understands them, and are very often confused about their own identity and are not sure which way they’d like to head in life. Add this to exam stress, family problems, relationship problems and fall-outs with friends, and it’s not surprising that they’re trying to find a way to cope with everything!

By looking at the big picture, it’s not really surprising that teens try smoking once or twice…but too many are getting stuck in the habit, and once the addiction sets in, it gets increasingly hard to break it. In fact, less than 1 in 10 of those who begin smoking under the age of 21 manage to quit!

Despite all the health warnings in the UK, around 1 in 5 teenagers still continue to smoke. Unless something is done about it soon, it doesn’t seem likely that things are going to get much better. However, around 6/10 teenagers stated that the smoking advertisements on the television have deterred them from the habit…so at least we’re on the right track to putting an end to teens smoking!