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Editorials for Clinical Practice

CHADIS Co-Director and President, Dr. Barbara Howard is a regular contributor to the Behavioral Consult column of Pediatric News and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.


Dr. Howard is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician trained by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton at Harvard University. She is a national speaker on child behavior problems and is a past president of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. She was a contributing author for Bright Futures™, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Primary Care (DSM-PC) and Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health and has served on national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Barbara Howard, MD

Did you know these things about nicotine? Your patients don’t.

When asked, young people report that their reasons for starting smoking include rebellion, a new thing to try, and a peer social activity, among others. While you recognize these as developmentally expected drives, it is frustrating and scary that youth don’t realize how their brains are especially sensitive to permanent changes from nicotine.

Smoking even five packs of cigarettes is enough to cause addiction in youth; an influence as powerful as cocaine or heroin. One pod of a vaping device delivers as much nicotine as one to five packs of cigarettes, depending on the strength and brand. There are no standards for this content and youth often are unaware of any nicotine and chemicals in vapes. Over 90% of adult smokers started before age 18, some as young as 6, mainly because quitting is so difficult. Cigarettes and vaping are not the only sources of nicotine used by youth; others are oral tobacco (chewing tobacco and dip), cigars, pipes, snus (between cheek and gum), hookahs, electronic devices, bidis (tobacco in a tendu leaf), kreteks (tobacco with cloves), and dissolvable tobacco products. Many youths use both cigarettes and noncigarette tobacco.

Given these predispositions, short-term COVID-19 and asthma exacerbation, and the long-lasting detriment of smoking on neurological, cardiac, pulmonary, and emotional health, actually the “leading preventable cause of death,” our job as pediatric providers is to do our best to prevent smoking/vaping or help our patients quit. But adolescent development is notoriously characterized by short-term thinking and feeling immune from long-term health consequences. So what approach has the best results? Focus on aspects of smoking important to the youth now, such as sports performance, bad breath, social stigma, insomnia, cost, lack of benefit for weight loss, and hazardous waste produced. Add to that loss of independence and being manipulated by Big Business by getting them (and targeted minorities) hooked may be salient in our discussion.

Even a brief 3-minute discussion using the AAC (Ask/Assess, Advise, Connect) format has shown effectiveness in getting teens and adults to quit smoking. Our assessment needs to include asking the extent of current use and symptoms of dependence to inform the treatment plan. We need to use their trust in us to advise them that quitting is the best thing they can do for their health.

If the youth’s readiness stage is “thinking about stopping” nicotine, our motivational interview-style discussion of pros and cons could include asking “How important is it to you to stop?” and “What are some things that would help you?” If they are open to trying to stop, advise them to set a quit date within 2 weeks and suggest reducing gradually before then (and schedule follow-up). The plan needs to include dealing with the inevitable urges by finding ways to avoid current triggers to smoke (e.g., certain school bathrooms, people drinking or smoking, or stress over homework, conflict at home, etc.). Encourage exercise and meditation to distract and deal with the anxiety; asking family to quit; have a snack handy (such as sugarless gum or sunflower seeds) for when oral cravings develop; and setting rewards for early days of smoke-free success. We need to inform youth that using e-cigs actually reduces rates of success in quitting.

We need to warn youth of the withdrawal symptoms and their usual course when quitting: cravings each lasting 15-20 minutes (starting at 1/2-4 hours); restlessness, sadness, hopelessness (10 hours); irritability, trouble concentrating, insomnia, hunger and weight gain (5-10 pounds over 2 weeks, starting 24 hrs); headaches, dizziness, fatigue (starting 2 days); and anxiety (starting 3 days). There tends to be less brain fog, and less hunger after 2-4 weeks, but depression, anxiety, irritability, cough, constipation, and even suicidal thoughts may last weeks to months. Sounds nasty, right? No wonder quitting is so hard.

Support is crucial to quitting and staying off nicotine. You can provide this but, in addition to friends and family, we should connect youth to free ongoing phone counselors (1-800-QUIT-NOW or 877-44U-QUIT for Spanish), text services (text QUIT to 47848), apps (quit START), or community support.

While behavioral treatments are best for youth with minimal to mild dependence, the risk of relapse is minimized with fewer withdrawal symptoms, thus the role of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) for those with moderate to strong dependence and to help anyone ad lib with cravings. NRT is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to supplement counseling, although NRT is not Food and Drug Administration approved and requires a prescription for those under 18.

How can we determine the degree of dependence? Smoking more than 15 cigarettes per day (or vape equivalent) and inhaling even “seldom” counts as “moderate” dependence and more than 26 with difficulty refraining in several situations as “substantial” in the Fagerstrom Tolerance test. Early morning smoking is asked about, important to which NRT to use (gum or lozenge for faster onset). The Hooked on Nicotine Checklist assesses “loss of autonomy” over smoking by any “yes” item and is incorporated in the CRAFFT screen. The recommended dose of NRT and length of weaning is greater in substantial addiction versus moderate. Besides gum, lozenges, patch, inhaler, and nasal spray, you can prescribe bupropion (Wellbutrin or Zyban) or varenicline (Chantix), making note of the black box suicide warning. Combining NRTs is similarly effective compared with varenicline.

Relapse after quitting is more common than not. As for any chronic condition, in relapse, we need to query adherence and consider increasing NRT dose or wean duration, even years. Discussion should have a positive focus on “what was learned” from past attempts in making a new plan that incorporates Relevance, Risks, Rewards, Roadblocks, and Repetition.

Many youth smokers start because their parents smoke. While addressing adults may seem out of scope, we often treat parents when managing scabies, pinworms, meningococcal disease, and even depression for the benefit of the child. The AAP recommends prescribing NRT for parents when needed.

Nicotine dependence is a chronic relapsing condition with comorbidities of substance use and psychiatric disorders that requires similar monitoring and support as for other chronic conditions we manage and is more likely to shorten lifespan than many.

Dr. Howard is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS. She had no other relevant disclosures. Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication was as a paid expert to MDedge News. E-mail her at


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