As a new anti-smoking campaign plays on the conscience of parents, The Star gathers some stark facts from health experts on the plight of smokers’ children
In a simple yet heart-rending plea, a little girl tells her mother why she wants her to stop smoking.
Mollie, 10, hesitates as she voices her fears about her mum dying from lung cancer just like her grandma did, and explains: “I don’t know what I would do without you.”
It’s not just Mollie’s mum who hears her touching words, but millions of television viewers throughout the country.
Mollie and a handful of other children are the real-life stars of a new Department of Health Smokefree advertising campaign designed to persuade smoking parents to quit by using their weak spot – their children. And the good news is that Mollie’s mum has now given up smoking.
The second wave of the Smokefree advertising campaign was launched alongside new research from the Department of Health which found that more than half (54%) of children with a parent who smokes say their one wish for Christmas is that their mum or dad gives up.
Almost all (98%) of the children with a smoking parent said they wished they’d quit – and 37% said they’d go without any Christmas presents if their parents kicked the habit.
Public health minister Anne Milton says: “What’s clear from the research is that children really want their parents to give up smoking.
“It’s not easy to give up, but we hope the campaign will give people that extra bit of encouragement they need to quit.”
Although children’s anti-smoking thoughts are compelling, is using them to prick their parents’ conscience really the best way of motivating them to kick the habit?
Certainly, after the first part of the Smokefree campaign ran in autumn 2009, research suggested that up to 500,000 smokers made an attempt to quit.
Deborah Arnott, chief executive of Action on Smoking & Health (ASH), says: “Evidence shows that smokers need to be motivated to quit and need advice on how to do it. This campaign does both.
“Parents want to do their best for their children, while it may be hard to do something just for themselves.”
Indeed, NHS Smokefree ambassador and Birds Of A Feather actress Linda Robson says her children were the reason she stopped smoking.
Robson, whose father died from lung cancer at 57, says: “There’s no way I wanted to put my own children through that experience. The thought of my kids visiting me in hospital was a strong motivation for me, and since I decided to quit my three kids have been a huge support.
“There are times now when I still want to reach for a cigarette, but for my own health and for the benefit of my family I’m committed to staying smokefree.”
ASH says that about half of all smokers make at least one attempt to quit in a given year. However, only 2-3% successfully stop smoking long-term, according to a 2006 study funded by Cancer Research UK.
But Arnott points out that people who use NHS Stop Smoking Services, which offer support, counselling and access to anti-smoking medicines like varenicline, or nicotine gum and patches, have a 16% quitting success rate.
She stresses: “That’s a dramatic increase – getting help is invaluable.”
She also urges smokers to get a free NHS Quit Kit, which contains practical tools such as a quitting planner and MP3 downloads to help reduce cravings, and information about local Stop Smoking Services.
Arnott says that while people sometimes try hypnosis and acupuncture in an attempt to stop smoking, “none of those things have been shown to be any more successful than just stopping without help, and they can be quite expensive”.
There’s also the motivational factors of how much money can be saved, how fertility can be improved, and that quitting smoking can help improve the way you look and smell.
Arnott adds: “Some people do, of course, quit on their own, but if you’re having trouble, go and get help because then you’re much more likely to succeed.”
As well as the health and financial benefits for the successful quitter, there are also major benefits for the rest of the family – including children being less likely to smoke themselves when they grow up.
A study earlier this year by Professor John Britton, director of the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies, and colleagues showed that if both parents smoke, children are around three times more likely to grow up to be smokers themselves than the children of non-smokers.
In addition, a Royal College of Physicians report last year estimated that passive smoking in children accounted for more than 20,000 cases of lower respiratory tract infection, 200 cases of bacterial meningitis and 40 sudden infant deaths every year.
“The risks are appalling,” stresses Arnott. “Half of smokers die of smoking-related diseases – and they’re really horrible diseases. It’s a terrible way to die.”
Professor John Britton, chairman of the Royal College of Physicians’ Tobacco Advisory Group, says many different approaches are needed to quit smoking, and using children in the anti-smoking war is one of many valid methods. “Lots of smokers want to stop smoking, and most need some sort of trigger to make them try,” he says.
“For every smoker, it’s a slightly different trigger, and the new Smokefree campaign will hit some of them. If one doesn’t work, you try another.”
He says other methods include concentrating on the health impact to individuals, tragic personal testimonies from people who’ve become ill through smoking, the impact of smoking on others, and the effects stopping can have.
“All of these different approaches offer something for some smokers. Giving up smoking has been likened to getting stuck in a busy nightclub when a fire breaks out – you need as many exits as possible.”