Why Risk Warnings about Smoking are Ineffective for Teens (and 5 Proven Strategies to Help Them Quit)

by Dr Antonio Howell, MD

in quit smoking

Dr. Howell

Lung disease, cancer and premature death – all these are tied to cigarette smoking. While risk warnings can encourage many older adults to quit for good, they seem to be ineffective for children and younger teens – a new study suggests.

In the study, researchers analyzed how likely young participants (ages between 9 and 26) thought that they are going to experience negative events, like getting lung disease or being in a car accident.

After completing the questionnaires, participants were shown the real statistics for those events, while the researchers noted how each one changed his or her beliefs after learning about the risks.

Surprisingly, even after learning about the risks, the younger participants were less likely to change their beliefs, even if the statistics show that the future could be worse than expected.


The study was conducted by the University College London in UK and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


These findings support the growing idea that cigarette pack warnings have less impact on teens. In 2011, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required tobacco manufacturers to print health warnings on cigarette packs in the form of images. However, this rule was challenged by tobacco companies until it was dropped. In a survey conducted by British researchers, it was found that only one in 10 teens said they thought about the warnings when the cigarette packet was not in sight.

Encouraging Young Smokers to Quit

So if telling them about the health risks of smoking is less likely to encourage young smokers to quit, then what could be a more effective approach? Here are some tips given by experts:


  1. Focus on the beneficial outcomes of quitting smoking. According to Tali Sharot, the senior author of the British study, focusing on the beneficial outcomes of the desired behavior, like how quitting smoking could improve their physical appearance or sport performance, is more likely to help them quit than focusing on its negative health outcomes.
  2. Be a role model. Teens may not understand why they are being discouraged to smoke when their parents also smoke. Setting a good example to your kids is one great way to discourage them from smoking.
  3. Understand their reasons. Many teens smoke because they think it could help them lose weight while some do to appear ‘cool’ and attractive to others. Some teens smoke as a form of rebellion while others are just being pressured by friends. Talk to your child about his or her reasons for smoking and listen with an open mind. Positive talk is the best way to encourage them to quit.
  4. Appeal to their vanity. Let your teen realize that smoking is never ‘cool’ or ‘sexy’. Smoking makes them look older and it turns their teeth yellow. Smoking can also deprive them the energy for sports and other enjoyable activities.
  5. Be clear on your stand. They may not ask you about it but you have to be clear on your stand about smoking. Tell them it is not allowed. Studies show that teens whose parents set the firmest smoking restrictions were less likely to smoke than those whose parents don’t set smoking limits.

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