Teenagers smoke because it’s cool. Smoking is the ultimate rebellion for those who have no other sense of control in their lives – they are told when to go to school, where to live, how to behave and what time they should be home. Smoking, enables teenagers to rebel and forge an identity with the limited resources they have – a rebellious identity for their peers, and themselves.

Teenagers know that smoking is bad for you, they just don’t care. Heart disease, lung cancer and having a foot removed are not realistic threats to a 17-year-old. In fact, studies have shown that many teenagers don’t even consider themselves mortal, as they haven’t been confronted by death or disease yet, and ageing isn’t something that seems real to them. Threatening young people with potential illness or death, as we’ve tried to do for so many years, is an exercise in futility.

They simply don’t believe us.

Likewise, using people from popular culture to deride smoking, simply increases its exclusivity – if they don’t want me to do it, then I must be really unique.

We need to start talking their language. Anti-smoking campaigns should revolve around things like –

Smoking makes you ugly, not in ten years, now –  Using powerful imagery of young people with damaged skin and other physical defects.

It’s Not Special – Imagery of average, unattractive people smoking.

It Doesn’t Make You Unique or Rebellious – Big groups of people smoking together in unglamorous and boring environments.

Communicating harsh truths, only works if they are relevant to the person who is listening. For someone in their early 30’s, who has smoked for 10 years and is about to become a parent for the first time, disease, death and their own mortality are very real. However, for a young person in high school, whose priorities are getting attention from their peers, impressing people of the opposite sex and increasing their own physical appeal, demonstrating clearly how smoking destroys any one of those priorities should be the goal.

The same goes for parents. For years we have tried to stop our children smoking by telling them it’s bad for them, that we don’t like it and that it’s not cool. The following statement is not meant to be funny or ironic –

We are not cool

So by very definition, anything we don’t like, instantly becomes cool. This extrapolates to mainstream media, who are also distinctly uncool. In fact, to anyone who remembers being a teenager, there are probably only a few people in the world they look up to as role models. Those people are unlikely to be supportive in any attempt to not take up the habit.

We can’t just tell them, we have to show them through demonstrating how smoking can destroy what it is they hold dear – even if we don’t understand / remember why they care about those things.