Young Athletes and Smoking: Kick the Habit for a Healthier Future

Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., and for young athletes who smoke, kicking the habit is even more important than it is for most people. Smoking reduces your ability to exercise, so if you want to perform at your peak, quitting is essential.

Almost 90 % of smokers first tried smoking by the time they were 18. This shocking statistic has a clear interpretation: if we want to reduce the impact smoking has on society, we have to protect the youth most of all. Any young person who starts smoking is opening him or herself up to serious health problems down the line, but for young athletes and smoking, the risks are even more serious. As well as increasing your risk of lung cancer, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and many other health problems, you’re also putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage.

Young Athletes and Smoking: The Statistics

There aren’t many studies addressing smoking among young athletes specifically, but several results make the extent of the problem clear. A review of the available evidence on college and high school sports participation and smoking found that in general, people who participate in sports are less likely to smoke than those who don’t participate.

However, the studies still show that large numbers of young athletes do smoke, even if it’s less likely than for non-athletes. For example, a CDC study looked at rates of combustible and smokeless tobacco use among high school athletes between 2001 and 2013. They found that around 18 % of high school athletes used combustible tobacco (including cigarettes and cigars), compared to 21.3 % of non-athletes in 2013.

The difference between these two figures is consistent with the other evidence, but the almost one-in-five smoking rate for youth athletes shows that there is still a lot of work to do.

Why Young Athletes Shouldn’t Smoke

Smoking is a terrible idea if you want to physically perform as well as you can. There are many reasons for this, but the most important relates to the carbon monoxide found in cigarette smoke. This chemical attaches to your red blood cells, which are supposed to carry oxygen to your muscles and your body’s systems. This means smokers have less oxygen getting to their muscles than non-smokers, and as a result, they get tired more quickly than non-smokers during exercise.

As well as this, smoking constricts your arteries, which means less blood can be pumped to the muscles per second. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that smoking also damages your lungs, and for young people, this effect can be especially severe. When you smoke as a teen, your lung growth can be stunted and you’ll lose lung functioning much more quickly than you would as a non-smoker. This means even if you do become a professional athlete, your career will start to suffer much sooner as you age.

Young People and Smoking: The Statistics

Although young athletes have more reason to avoid smoking than non-athletes, the issue of youth smoking isn’t limited to teens with dreams of becoming famous sportsmen or sportswomen.

According to data from the National Youth Tobacco Survey, 9.3 % of high school students are current cigarette smokers. Over time, the trends in smoking are positive – smoking rates are down from 15.8 % in 2011 – but there is still a lot of work to do to reduce youth smoking rates. Middle school students are less likely to smoke, but the statistics for them tell a similar story: 2.3 % of students were current smokers in 2015, compared to 4.3 % in 2011.

Since peer influence is a big factor in picking up smoking, the fact that large numbers of high school students smoke undoubtedly has a role to play in the number of young athletes taking up smoking.

Smokeless Tobacco and Young Athletes

Finally, there is one issue worth mentioning specifically. While student athletes don’t smoke as much as non-athlete students, they’re actually more likely to use smokeless tobacco. The CDC study referenced earlier found that while 5.9 % of non-athletes used smokeless tobacco, 11.1 % of high school athletes did. Although smokeless tobacco is safer than combustible tobacco, the best thing to do as a student athlete is quit using tobacco in any form.

Helping Young Athletes Quit Smoking

The still-high smoking rates among youth athletes and their increased risk of using smokeless tobacco underlines that there is a lot of work to do to help youth become tobacco-free. As well as posing risks of serious health conditions in the future, young athletes who smoke are impacting their ability to perform athletically. For all teachers, parents, coaches and concerned students, cutting the connection between young athletes and smoking should remain a crucial goal.