The actor Kiefer Sutherland once said, “There's a confidence that comes from youth and not knowing better.” The adventurous curiosity of youth is a part of how we all learn, and risk taking is a part of this process. Yet we know that misplaced confidence and risk taking can be ominous for youth when the consequences of “not knowing better” pose a serious threat to health and safety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conduct a nationwide survey of youth risk behaviors (YBRSS) every two years. This is interesting reading at www.cdc.gov/yrbss and the most recent data were released in June.
Tobacco use is one of these risk-taking behaviors which heavily impacts the youth of Kentucky. Our youth have some of the highest smoking and tobacco use rates in the nation. One in four Kentucky youth report current cigarette smoking, and 1 in 4 male youth currently use smokeless tobacco. A startling one third of Kentucky youth report using tobacco of some type including 4 out of 10 for male youth. Yet what most youth don’t think about when they start smoking at a young age is that half of them will eventually die unnecessarily from using tobacco. In Kentucky this means that 107,000 kids alive today will die from tobacco use. Tobacco use is the leading cause of premature death and disease worldwide.
Once started, tobacco use is difficult to stop and many persistent smokers, including those who struggle to quit later in life, started smoking at a young age. Over half of our youth cigarette smokers have tried to quit, which is good news. However, staying quit can be a challenge and relapse back to smoking is commonplace.
Kentucky also has one of the highest adult smoking rates in the nation.
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What can we do to help youth who are at risk for lifelong health consequences of tobacco use? Tobacco companies continue to target market their products to youth and new federal legislation was enacted last year to attempt to counteract this practice. Laws have been strengthened to limit sale of tobacco products to minors.
Tobacco product sponsorship of concert and sporting events has been restricted to help lessen the “glamor” image of tobacco use. Kentucky needs to increase tobacco taxes, the public health approach to reduce youth smoking having the greatest impact. We also need more smoke-free communities and workplaces, a public health vaccine known to reduce youth smoking. Smoke-free homes and cars reduce smoking rates and lower exposure to the toxic effects of secondhand smoke, a known health hazard to young and old alike.
We can be more proactive in recognizing and discussing all risky behaviors with children, particularly tobacco use. It is easy to think that risk taking is a “natural” part of growing up, but the consequences to our youth remain great if we consider harmful behaviors a “normal” or expected rite of passage. We can and should work to provide protection, knowledge and support for our youth to make healthy not harmful choices. Our future depends on it.
Audrey Darville is a certified tobacco treatment specialist with UKHealthCare.