The Facts

Preventing Youth and Young Adults from Tobacco's Deathly Grip

No smoking sign

The Problem

Smoking Causes Death and Disease

The Causes

The Solutions

Early Smoking Consequences


What We Can Do


CDC's Tips from Former Smokers Campaign 



Today’s teens and young adults can access information on millions of subjects almost instantly. But many of the same media that warn of the dangers of tobacco use also carry messages that smoking is cool—edgy—adult. That’s one reason nearly 4,000 kids under age 18 try their first cigarette every day. That’s almost 1.5 million youth a year.

In fact, nearly 9 out of 10 smokers start smoking by age 18, and 99% start by age 26. On any given day, more than 2.500 youth and young adults who have been occasional smokers will become regular smokers. And at least a third of these replacement smokers will die early from smoking.

Today, one out of four high school seniors and one out of three young adults under age 26 are smokers. 


People who smoke don’t have to wait for tobacco use to damage their health. There are more than 7,000 chemicals and chemical compounds in cigarette smoke, many of which are toxic. These chemicals can cause immediate damage to the human body. Even young adults under age 30 who started smoking in their teens and early twenties can develop smokingrelated health problems, such as:

  • Early cardiovascular disease.
  • Smaller lungs that don’t function normally.
  • Wheezing that can lead to a diagnosis of asthma.
  • DNA damage that can cause cancer almost anywhere in the body.

On average, lifelong smokers get sicker and die younger than nonsmokers. These smokers die an average of 13 years sooner.


Young people start using tobacco for many reasons. These are some of the most important:

The Tobacco Industry

Fewer adults are smoking today, both because many have quit and because about half of long-term smokers die from diseases caused by their tobacco use. So, cigarette companies look to young people as replacement smokers. They use a variety of marketing strategies to encourage new consumers to try their products, and to continue using them. Click HERE to learn more about Industry Tactics.

Susceptibility of Youth and Young Adults

Adolescence and young adulthood are the times when people are most susceptible to starting tobacco use. Young people are more vulnerable and more influenced by marketing than adults. They are also more willing to take risks, even with their health. When smoking is portrayed as a social norm among others who are seen as cool, sophisticated, rebellious, or fun-loving, teens often respond by copying the behavior and trying cigarettes themselves. If their friends smoke, or their siblings smoke, they are even more likely to smoke themselves.

And young people are sensitive to nicotine. The younger they are when they start using tobacco, the more likely they are to become addicted to nicotine and the more heavily addicted they will become.

Young people sometimes believe nothing can hurt them. Facts about health problems that could happen in middle age—or even right away—may mean little to them now. Many teens and young adults don’t realize how addictive nicotine is. Some may have a tough time making healthy choices or sorting out tobacco myths from facts. Others may want to fit in with a group or seem older, edgier, or more socially grounded. And images that encourage tobacco use are everywhere— from the Internet to the movies to big, bright advertisements at convenience stores. All of these factors make youth a prime market for tobacco products.

Social Norms

Many norms in our society influence young people to try tobacco products. People smoke in public in half of U.S. states because there are no comprehensive smoke-free laws that prohibit smoking at work sites, restaurants, and bars. Even states that prohibit smoking inside public buildings often have outdoor smoking areas, some near schools and day care centers. Tobacco use is prominent in mass media, including in movies, social media, video games, and glossy magazines. And tobacco advertising both inside and outside retail stores is often the largest, most visible advertising for any product.


Prevention is critical. If young people don’t start using tobacco by age 26, they almost certainly will never start. The good news is that there are many things we can do to help keep teens and young adults tobacco-free. We can:

  • Create a world where seeing people smoke or use other tobacco products is the exception, not the norm.
  • Take steps that make it harder for youth to use tobacco, such as raising cigarette prices and enforcing laws that prohibit the sale of tobacco to children.
  • Further limit tobacco marketing that is likely to be seen by young people.
  • Limit youth exposure to smoking in movies and other media.
  • Educate young people and help them make healthy choices.
  • Set an example—encourage young people to avoid tobacco use by quitting ourselves.

For many decades, local and state health departments, schools, and federal programs have taken steps to protect youth from tobacco use. But in recent years, many of these efforts have been scaled back. We know what works to keep young people tobacco-free, but we don’t always do what is necessary. We have lready made some progress in reducing tobacco use by youth. Let’s finish what we started and make the next generation tobacco free.


New research shows that smoking during adolescence and young adulthood causes early damage to the abdominal aorta, the large artery that carries oxygen-rich blood from the heart through the abdomen to major organs. Even young adults who have only been smoking for a few years can show signs of narrowing of this large artery. When a person breathes tobacco smoke, it causes immediate damage to blood vessels throughout the body. Repeatedly breathing tobacco smoke can cause a mixture of scar tissue and fats to build up inside blood vessels. This plaque makes blood vessels narrow and limits blood flow.


Young people are still growing. Their lungs don’t reach full size until late teens for girls and after age 20 for boys. Adults who smoked during adolescence can have lungs that never grow to their potential size and never perform at full capacity.

The lungs of young smokers don’t perform as well as those of nonsmokers. Because their lungs don’t work as well, they are short of breath and may have more trouble participating in sports and other physical activities. Even though people who stop smoking will improve their health dramatically, early lung damage doesn’t go away completely in most cases.


Tobacco smoke contains about 70 chemicals that can cause cancer. It’s no surprise, then, that smoking causes about one in three of all cancer deaths in the United States. And it can cause cancer almost anywhere in the body by damaging DNA.

Youth—a Great Time to Quit

The good news: Smokers who quit before age 30 will undo much of the health damage caused by tobacco use. Click HERE to see if a Not on Tobacco (N-O-T) teen smoking cessation group is offered at your school!

Why Is It So Hard to Quit?

Tobacco users often get hooked on nicotine—the drug in cigarettes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco (snuff and chewing tobacco). Many teens and young adults plan to quit using tobacco after a few years but find out too late how powerfully addictive nicotine can be. Like heroin and cocaine, nicotine acts on the brain and creates feelings of pleasure or satisfaction. Young brains are still developing. That may be one reason many teens feel dependent on tobacco after using it for only a short time.

Quitting isn’t easy, but it can be done.

Better yet—don’t start!

Not starting is even better than quitting. Learn what risk factors to look for and how to help yourself, your friends, or the young people in your life stay tobacco-free (see page 13). Their health depends on it!

How many teens and young adults use tobacco today?

3 million high school students and 600,000 middle school students smoke cigarettes.

  • 1 in 3 young adults smokes cigarettes.
  • 1 in 4 high school seniors smokes cigarettes.
  • 1 in 5 male high school seniors smokes cigars and 1 in 10 uses smokeless tobacco.

Many young people use more than one type of tobacco. Among those who use tobacco, more than half of high school males and nearly a third of high school females use more than one tobacco product. These products include cigarettes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco, such as chew and snus, a dry snuff in a small teabag-like sachet.

Why the industry targets young people

Young people are a prime market for tobacco products. With smoking among adults declining, tobacco makers need to replace long-term users who have quit . . . or died. So the tobacco industry recruits replacement smokers from youth and young adults—the age groups in which 99% of tobacco use begins. Young adults are a prime target for tobacco advertising and marketing. And messages aimed at this age group also attract the attention of younger consumers—a plus for the tobacco industry.


If we choose to, we can end the tobacco epidemic in this country. But it’s going to take all of us—parents, teachers, health care providers, communities, states, schools, and policymakers—supporting policies, programs, and media campaigns that prevent tobacco use by youth and young adults.


There are effective policies and programs that prevent young people from using tobacco. Policies and programs that contain several parts working together to make tobacco use more difficult and less accepted are the ones that work best.


Policies are very effective because they can change the environment so that choosing a tobacco-free life is encouraged and supported. Government and private entities have implemented a number of policies that are effective in preventing youth tobacco use.

Here are some policies proven to work best:

  • Make tobacco products less affordable.
  • Restrict tobacco marketing.
  • Ban smoking in public places—such as workplaces, schools, day care centers, hospitals, restaurants, hotels, and parks.
  • Require tobacco companies to label tobacco packages with large, graphic health warnings.


Many states and communities have programs to prevent tobacco use by young people. Not On Tobacco (N-O-T) is the American Lung Association’s voluntary smoking cessation program for teens 14-19. Over the 10-week program, participants learn to identify their reasons for smoking, healthy alternatives to tobacco use, and people who will support them in their efforts to quit. Learn more HERE.


Mass media campaigns against tobacco use—most often TV ads—have proven very effective at helping prevent tobacco use by young people. Studies show that teens respond most to ads that trigger strong negative feelings, such as ads about how smoking and secondhand smoke harm health and ads that expose the tobacco industry’s marketing strategies that target young people. Even ads that are designed for adult audiences help reduce tobacco use among young people.

Every 3 or 4 years, new groups of children and teens reach the age where they are vulnerable to influences encouraging them to smoke. To be effective, mass media campaigns must be repeated so they will reach new vulnerable populations.


You can help your children make healthy choices about tobacco use. Try these tips.

Tell them:

  • Key facts about tobacco.
  • You don’t want anyone—including them—to use tobacco in your house or car.
  • You expect they will never use tobacco, or will stop using it.

Help them:

  • Cope with their problems.
  • Refuse tobacco.
  • Quit if they’re current users.

Make sure you:

  • Know what they’re doing and who their friends are.
  • Network with other parents who can help you encourage children and teens to refuse tobacco.
  • Encourage your children’s schools to enforce tobacco-free policies for students, faculty, staff, and visitors both on campus and at all school-sponsored events off campus.
  • Enforce movie age restrictions—and discourage teens from playing video games or using other media that feature smoking.
  • Never give tobacco to children or teens.
  • Set a good example by not using tobacco yourself.

 For every person who dies from a tobacco-related disease, 20 more suffer from a serious chronic illness caused by tobacco. Click HERE to read about the Center for Disease Control (CDC)'s new Tips from Former Smokers campaign and watch their heartbreaking testimonials.

 Surgeon General's Report shows that Youth Smoking is NOT an Accident


Back to Top