Can teenagers be persuaded to heed warnings about the dangers of the cigarette habit?

John Dean took up smoking when in his teens and now suffers from Buerger's disease, a form of thrombosis that affects male smokers and may lead to the amputation of both his legs. His solicitors are preparing a claim against a tobacco company, alleging negligence on the grounds that when Dean, of Newtonards, Northern Ireland, started smoking, there were no health warnings on cigarette packets. Despite warnings today, teenagers do still smoke, and it appears that it is girls rather than boys who have been less convincing at saying no to cigarettes.

Department of Health surveys show that in 1986 there were almost two girl smokers to every boy, between the ages of 11 and 15.

Parents, especially those who once smoked, can adopt a missionary zeal in discouraging smoking among their children, but warnings and bribes seem little defense against the attraction of teenage smoking.

Hannah Folan, a Liverpool city councillor, spearheaded a move last April which resulted in Liverpool becoming the first local authority to grant direct prosecution powers to trading standards officers who find tobacconists selling cigarettes to children. She admits that her teenage son, now 19, has been smoking for four years, although he’s thinking of buying a vaporizer to minimize the risks of lung disease.

Michael Belcher, the charge nurse at the country's only full-time smokers' clinic, at the Maudsley Hospital in Camberwell, London, says it appears easier for an older smoker to kick the habit than it is for a youngster.

Can school campaigns fare any better than parents? According to the website, the Government seems to think so, having made schools and in particular the schoolgirl smoker the prime target for its most recent campaign.

In April the Health Education Authority held its first policy-making meeting to decide what could be done to stamp out the habit among all young people. But how can they win when so many school lectures, printed leaflets,  and jars full of diseased lungs in formaldehyde have failed?

Ann McNeill, a research psychologist at the London Institute of Psychiatry's Addiction Research Unit at the Maudsley has some ideas.

During the past four years she has studied the smoking habits and nicotine levels of young girls in one anonymous London comprehensive. She says two things have particularly caught the imagination, and sometimes the breath, of these youngsters. The first is a carbon monoxide meter which gives an immediate reading of the levels of this poisonous gas in the body. The second takes longer but has proved effective. It is a saliva test which shows the level of cotinine, a stimulant formed in the breakdown of nicotine.

McNeill thinks that smokers' clinics in schools along the lines of those run in Camberwell, are ``a lovely idea but I don't think it's feasible. When do you hold it? After school, and probably nobody would turn up. During a lesson and you have the problem of officially identifying the smokers and letting them think that they might be addicted when that may well not be the case.''

Michael Belcher's message to the Hannah Folans of this world, whose offspring are addicted, is this: ``It's counter-productive to go on actually nagging. Just make it clear that you care about them and their state of health.'' 

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