Tobacco use in adolescents

Written by on May 20, 2019

By Stanslous Ngosa

Adolescents, who are in a phase of exploration to develop skills, to appreciate their limit and boundaries, can out of a desire for social self-growth and to kill their curiosity start to smoke. 

According  Ministry of Health Assistant Director Adolescents Health Dr Matilda Simpungwe, adolescents use both cigarettes and smokeless tobacco (snuff).

 Tobacco use usually happens when young people find themselves in groups of peers who pressure them to smoke or snuff. If friends and family members of the same age smoke, the likelihood of adolescents engaging in smoking increases as acceptance by peers or a sense of belonging play a very big role during this phase of development. The situation is worsened when there is easy access to or availability of lowly priced tobacco products.

This is the case in most high density areas especially in markets and bus stations in Zambia. It is not unusual to see a display of different brands of cigarettes decorated along busy streets and sold as single sticks in make-shift stalls at bus stops and market.

This is also true for smokeless tobacco which is sold in small and affordable quantities to whoever is willing to pay regardless of their age.

While some children start to smoke to emulate celebrities or TV personalities, others are inadvertently introduced to smoking and snuff by their parents. Use of tobacco by parents or other family members is a big contributor to adolescents’ chances to smoke.

Out of adventure, young people  have their first ‘test’ of tobacco when they are asked to by grownup family members to buy, to  ‘light the cigarettes’ and to pick and put away bottles of snuff. Some grownups even recommend snuff as a remedy to treat a cold and encourage children to use the harmful product.

There is also a growing concern that aside from sniffing smokeless tobacco, women and young girls are inserting it in the vagina to tighten and increase the warm of the vagina to enhance sexual pleasure of their male sexual partners.

Adolescents who exhibit anti-social tendencies, who are rebellious, perform poorly in their academics and have poor relationships with families are more likely to abuse tobacco to ‘calm their nerves’. Street kids and adolescents working at bus stations and markets confirm this observation.

By now everyone knows that tobacco use is harmful. Devastating effects of tobacco use are evident throughout the human development cycle; from the unborn baby to a grown-up. Low birth weight, miscarriages and slow child development are some of the effects of tobacco on babies born to mothers who smoke cigarettes.

In adolescents and grown-ups, smoking causes damage of many organs of the body.  The impact is greatest in people who start smoking below the age of 15 years and over a long period of time.   Frequent and persistent coughs, lung infections (pneumonia) shortness of breath or difficult breathing are common complaints among smokers.

Smoking also weakens the immune system which makes is difficult for the body to fight off diseases like Tuberculosis (TB). This is because tobacco and cigarette smoke contain harmful substances that comprise the normal function of the body rendering it defenceless.

Levels of physical fitness and endurance as well as academic performance are adversely affected in adolescents who use tobacco because of the long term impact of harmful tobacco by-products.

Other effects of tobacco use include heart diseases and stroke, cancers of the lung, mouth, stomach, kidney, bladder, and cervix. 90% of lung cancers are associated with cigarette smoking.

The development of cancer is slow and usually not evident from the outside hence, most smokers do not realize the devastating conditions they are in. Owing to wide spread cultural beliefs in Zambia, postmortems are rarely performed to establish the cause of death in most chronic smokers who die from ‘slimming disease’.

This state of affairs makes it impossible for the health system to accurately report on the number of people dying from cancer associated with tobacco use.

It is very important to establish and strengthen interventions to protect adolescents from tobacco use considering the above listed harmful effects of tobacco use. Awareness raising on the harmful effects of tobacco is very important and should be done in a concerted manner. Parents should be the primary educators and role models while community leaders should promote/enforce laws that deter adolescents from easily accessing tobacco by restricting the sale of tobacco in designated places by licensed traders.

The police school liaison unit, the drug enforcement commission, the ministries of health and general education are collaborating to address tobacco use as it is a gateway to use of other substances such as cannabis, marijuana and cocaine. Awareness raising in adolescents on effects of tobacco and substance use; establishing anti-drug school clubs and conducting outreach services to provide counselling services to young people besieged by tobacco use are the focus areas.

The Author is Ministry of Health Head-Media Relations

For comments contact: Communication and External Relations Unit -MoH. Mobile: +260977694310, +26077835660

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