Q: We just discovered that our 17-year-old is using nicotine. He tells us he’s been using for the past several months, smoking two to four cigarettes a day to cope with academic anxiety and relationships. He tends to be socially reserved and has been struggling with academics of late. He appears contrite and remorseful and has said “I should never have gotten started with this stuff in the first place.” On the other hand, he’s also confessed that the only reason he would quit is because it upsets us. Can you give us some insights into this problem and tips on how to assist him in his recovery?
A: My guess, knowing this age and gender quite well, is that your son is playing the victim insincerely. If I’m correct, his objective is to confuse the issue and cause you insecurity concerning your response. And he is definitely succeeding.
Let’s be clear on a few things. First, he is probably smoking more than he’s admitting. If he admits to four cigarettes a day, he’s probably smoking as many as ten. Second, it is very doubtful that your son began smoking or is continuing to smoke in order to cope with anything. In all likelihood, he began because certain of his friends are smoking and he feels that’s what he has to do in order to be accepted. If I’m correct, then the only thing he’s using cigarettes to cope with is peer pressure. Third, he is telling you the truth when he says that he would only consider quitting because it upsets you. What that means is that the benefits of smoking outweigh the costs. His use of the term “consider” means exactly that: he will think about quitting, but in the end, he probably won’t. That’s refreshingly frank, actually.
I may not need to tell you (or the average reader) any of the following, but I will anyway: In addition to the fact that nicotine is highly addictive—some addiction experts claim that it’s more addictive (harder to quit) than heroin—smoking is decidedly bad for one’s health and quality of life, both in the short and long term. Furthermore, the negative effects of smoking for even several years during late adolescence and young adulthood may not show up until one’s middle years. In other words, the fact that three out of four high school students who smoke continue to do so well into adulthood is deceptive because closer to four out of four will damage themselves permanently in some way.
Here’s how to call his bluff (if in fact he is bluffing): Introduce him to nicotine gum or lozenges (obtained without prescription from most drug stores), saying, “If this is about nicotine and not cigarettes, then this product will satisfy your craving. If it doesn’t, then I will know this is really about going along with your foolhardy friends.”
If after beginning to use the gum/lozenges he stops smoking, fine and dandy. Studies have shown, by the way, that nicotine improves certain mental functions, including memory. If he doesn’t stop smoking, then cut him off. Stop giving him money. In addition, confiscate his cell phone and suspend his driving privileges until he shows no evidence of smoking for at least a month. Hopefully, those consequences will override peer pressure.