By Mackie Shilstone

Smoking is one of the most damaging things a person can do to his or her own body. There is no longer any dispute that it is the leading cause of lung cancer in adults, and it can be directly related to emphysema, heart disease, chronic bronchitis, and numerous other cancers and ailments. Smoking can make you short-winded and, if you already suffer from respiratory ailments such as asthma, it can worsen the condition. People who smoke are generally sick more often than those who don't, and thousands of work hours are lost each year by those suffering from smoke-related ailments.

Most smokers today acquired the habit when they were young. Very few people start smoking when they're adults. This is where it becomes a real challenge for parents to keep their kids from picking up the habit before they get 'hooked'.

Parents need to be aware that smoking often begins as a form of peer pressure. Their sons or daughters may have friends who smoke and, the longer they hang around their smoking friends, the more inclined they might be to try it. The kids are not going to like it at first. No one does. The first puffs anyone takes will cause them to cough and possibly get dizzy. But, if they're convinced that smoking is 'cool', they will continue to light up until they get used to inhaling the smoke. At that point they are likely to become hooked.

Smoking is an addiction. Cigarettes are the delivery mechanism for an addictive substance known as nicotine. It is this substance that causes the 'cravings' a smoker usually feels when his or her system is telling them it's time to light up again. And, once the person is hooked, quitting usually becomes very difficult.

Parents should try to detect this problem in their kids as early as possible and take the appropriate steps to deal with it. If they are smokers themselves, they should set an example and not smoke around their kids. Not only are they polluting the air with second-hand smoke their kids will breathe, they are also 'in effect' telling their kids it's all right to smoke. When the kids see the parents doing something, they assume it's OK for them.

If the parents are non-smokers, they should be alert to the signs that their kids are smoking. One sure way to tell is by the odor smoking exudes. An alert parent should be able to smell it on their kids' breath or in their hair or clothing. Then comes the question of how to handle it. Punishing the child or yelling at him or her may only make the child more rebellious and more determined to continue smoking. Patiently sitting down with him or her and explaining the dangers of smoking might be effective if done in an understanding, non-threatening way. Maybe by showing pictures of diseased lungs that are available in books or on the Internet, parents can visually illustrate the harm smoking can cause. If these 'scare tactics' don't work, maybe bringing the child to a doctor and having him or her explain the dangers of smoking may be effective.

Fortunately, smoking among young people today is not deemed to be as 'cool' as it was a generation or two ago. There is a lot of peer pressure not to smoke and this is a welcome development in the war against smoking. Many of the kids today are proud to consider themselves members of 'the unhooked generation.' Cigarette companies themselves are at least giving lip service to the crusade against childhood smoking. Unfortunately, however, kids are still picking up the habit, especially in rural areas of the country where there may be several generations of smokers.

Our task, then as parents, is to keep hammering the message home about how bad smoking is to our overall health. It was 40 years ago (1964) that the Surgeon General of the United States released the first report confirming the links between smoking and lung cancer. Since that time the number of smokers in this country has been reduced by more than 50%. Hopefully, as we continue getting the message across to our kids, those numbers will drop even lower.