Teenage Smoking – Challenges and Intervention

Today’s article is written by Ms. Parmeet Soni, who works at Mental Health Foundation, Kolkata as a Clinical Psychologist & Consultant in Social Care.

I received the most interesting response from a young teen when he heard I would be posting a write up on teenage smoking. He retorted back saying, ‘The world has larger problems! Why don’t you think of filing a PIL with the government regarding a more important issue?’

This really got me thinking.
1. Does this kid have his life more sorted than I have?
2. Should I pull a Raghav Mandava on him or, recommend Allen Carr’s book.
3. How do I make my tough critic here realize this is not such a ‘non issue’ to bail out?

Clearly, the anti smoking campaigns have failed miserably at addressing this issue. Far from building awareness among the youth, ‘Mukesh’, the protagonist of the anti tobacco campaign, has become the artistic expression for creative parodies on You Tube.

So how does one address this?
• If you quiz a teen on the harmful effects of smoking, they might provide you more accurate statistics than you have on the death rates due to smoking in comparison to other illness’ or accidents.
• If you try and make the argument stronger by focusing on the varying stages of smoking from experimentation to getting dependent on it. They are quick to point out they smoke because they like to and can stop whenever they want to.

This is exactly why it is important to talk about teenage smoking. Because like my young critic here, many other smokers are very effective at providing themselves and others rational arguments to continue with this ‘habit’. Most believe that it is within their control and they can quit smoking whenever they feel like.

To all such users I recommend a 2 week experiment to know this habit better:
For two weeks every time you feel like smoking do not give in to this ‘habit’. If you find yourself feeling a sudden urge to smoke and it is difficult for you to resist especially when around other smokers. This issue is beyond habit. This is you experiencing craving for nicotine which is a highly addictive substance present in cigarettes.

Nicotine alters the balance of two chemicals, called dopamine and noradrenaline, in your brain. When nicotine changes the levels of these chemicals, your mood and concentration levels change. Many smokers find this enjoyable. The changes happen very quickly. When you inhale the nicotine, it immediately rushes to your brain, where it produces feelings of pleasure and reduces stress and anxiety. This is why many smokers enjoy the nicotine rush and become dependent on it. The more you smoke, the more your brain becomes used to the nicotine. This means you have to smoke more to get the same effect. When you stop smoking, the loss of nicotine changes the levels of dopamine and noradrenaline. This can make you feel anxious, depressed and irritable. It’s normal to crave nicotine when you quit, as smoking provides an immediate fix to these unpleasant feelings. (reference: NHS Why is smoking addictive?)

Research indicates pharmacological intervention, Nicotine Replacement Therapies (NRT’s) along with cognitive and behavioural interventions prove to be effective in management of both craving and withdrawals one faces while trying to quit smoking, which often leads to relapse.

But, before one reaches the point of intervention the most important factor is ‘readiness’ to change. Parents would point out that the teens are often not motivated and easily influenced by peers. Psychologists would tell you that the child at this stage of development is experiencing ‘identity crisis’ and their brain is more analytical than ever.

To be more effective in getting outcomes in smoking cessation, building a relatable peer group would be step one in addressing the issue. Schools could participate by holding debates and bringing in self advocates who could discuss their personal struggles with smoking and build insight among the teens. These small steps could help initiate a dialogue, break certain myths and taboos around smoking. Adults in the child’s environment, for example parent who smoke could try leading by example.

If this article in some way spoke to you, and you think it might to others as well, please consider sharing it with them.

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