Facts About Underage Smoking

Smoking is the primary cause of preventable death, disability and disease in the United States. Cigarettes and other tobacco products can be sold legally to anyone age 18 and older in most areas. Underage smokers face an increased risk of lifelong addiction and serious health problems, such as cancer and heart disease. Understanding the facts about underage smoking helps parents and educators to develop effective strategies to prevent smoking in children and teens.

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Numbers and Statistics

Underage smoking is a major health threat among U.S. children and teens. According to Medline Plus, nearly 25 percent of U.S. high school students are smokers, and an additional 8 percent use smokeless tobacco products, such as snuff and dip 1. What's more, an estimated 30 percent of young smokers eventually will develop long-term smoking habits and will die prematurely from a tobacco-related condition.


Many factors play into a child's decision to try tobacco. A desire to appear older and more mature or to rebel against parents often prompts kids and teens to experiment with tobacco.

Peer pressure and a desire to fit in with other smokers plays a role for many children, while media influence and general curiosity about the effects of cigarettes can also sway the decisions of underage smokers. Other potential causes include tobacco advertisements, enjoyment of the effects of cigarettes and ignorance of the health risks.

Health Effects

Tobacco smoke is harmful to every organ system in the body. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, smoking is responsible for nearly a third of all cancer deaths in the United States, with smokers dying of cancer at twice the rate of nonsmokers. In addition, smoking has been linked to the development of pneumonia, leukemia, heart disease and reproductive problems, such as:

  • low birth weight
  • Sudden Infant Death Syndrome

Addiction and Withdrawal

The nicotine in tobacco products can cause severe addiction and withdrawal problems 2. The threat of nicotine addiction is even greater for underage smokers. According to NIDA for Teens, people who start smoking before age 21 have more difficulty quitting than those who first try cigarettes later in life 2.

Smoking delivers nicotine to the brain in a matter of seconds; effects peak within 10 seconds of inhalation. These effects fade quickly, however, causing the user to crave another dose. Irritability, increased appetite, headache and anxiety are among the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal that often lead smokers to resume the habit.


Spreading information and awareness about the harmful effects of smoking can help curb underage smoking. Prevention programs that use honest, factual information about the physical and psychological effects of tobacco can help influence the behavior of impressionable adolescents and teens.

The most effective programs incorporate education from law enforcement, parents, teachers, community leaders and the media. Close supervision also empowers care givers to spot the signs of tobacco use early for more favorable outcomes.