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Smoking and cancer: Children and smoking

By the age of 15, around one in eight children have become regular smokers. Our own research has shown that trying just one cigarette can make children more likely to start smoking several years later.

Children who smoke often become regular adult smokers. They also suffer immediate health consequences from smoking. Child smokers are more susceptible to coughs, increased phlegm, wheeziness and shortness of breath, and take more time off school.

It is illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under 18.

Why do children smoke?

There are a number of reasons why children may try smoking.

Tobacco advertising

Research has shown that advertising may encourage children to start smoking. Even adverts aimed at over 18s are attractive to children who aspire to adult behaviour. Direct cigarette advertising is now banned in the UK. Find out more about the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act in the public policy tobacco control section.

A sibling or parent who smokes

Siblings and parents are role models for children. If a child’s parents smoke they are three times more likely to smoke themselves.


All teenagers experiment - often with activities that they believe make them appear more 'grown up'. Trying new things and making mistakes is part of the normal learning process. But the danger with trying smoking is that nicotine is very addictive.

What can you do if your child has started smoking?

Talking to teenagers about smoking can be tricky. Read these tips if your child is smoking and you want to try to help them quit.

  • If you smoke yourself, give up. It will help if you can set a good example.
  • Don't panic or overreact. If you are very worried you may want to talk to another adult before talking to your child.
  • Choose a time to talk to your child when you’re calm and they don’t want to be somewhere else.
  • Ask lots of open questions to find out how they started smoking, how often they smoke, who they smoke with etc. Be aware that starting conversations with ‘why’ can seem aggressive.
  • Make sure you really listen to what your child is saying.
  • Explain that its better never to start smoking as it quickly leads to addiction.
  • Point out how expensive smoking is and discuss what else your child could do with the money.
  • You can try discussing the health effects of smoking. But young people will often have learnt about the consequences of smoking at school and may not want to think about their long-term health.
  • Keep talking about smoking from time to time in a non-confrontational manner. At the same time make it clear that you do have your own views and house rules.
  • Offer your love and support. Focus on the positives and try to build your child’s self esteem. Acknowledge any progress they make with giving up.
  • Giving up isn’t easy for adults or children. Be aware of the difficulties your child may be facing and the isolation they may feel if all their friends are smoking.

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Updated: 26 April 2012