PoliticalSpeak: preventing MS - teenage smoking

Calling all parents with teenage children; I need your help #MSPolitics #MSBlog #MSResearch

“Preventing, or at least reducing the incidence of, MS and other autoimmune diseases sounds relatively easy. Simply identify the risk factors and get the population to avoid them. Take smoking for example; it increases your risk of getting MS by approximately 50%, not to mention rheumatoid arthritis and a whole lot of other allergic diseases. Why then do people still smoke despite the negative publicity? My wife would say marketing, the power of branding and money. I note the Canadians have just given BAT (British American Tobacco) a whopping CAD$10.4bn (£5.5bn) fine; it was large enough to wipe 2.5% off the stock market value of BAT. Good on the Canadians. But is it enough?

I was doing an end-of year assessment with one of my academic trainees yesterday and said to him that the most important thing doctors can do is practice what they preach. You can’t tell your patients to exercise and lose weight if you are obese and a couch potato. You can’t tell your patients to stop smoking , and to try and stop their kids from smoking, if you smoke and your children smoke. This is why I am so disappointed that my daughter who is 18 smokes, and so do all her friends. Why? You don’t have to look too far to find out. It is cool to smoke; a large number of the role models that teenage girls idolise smoke. Girls also smoke to lose weight and stay thin. Smoking is an appetite suppressant; if you smoke you will be thinner. As Kate Moss says ‘nothing tastes as good as thin feels’. The corollary is nothing tastes as bad as kissing a smoker, when you are a non-smoker. 

Kate Moss - pretty, young and skinny; a smoking icon! 
My daughter is well educated; she finished A-levels last year with stunning marks and has just finished first year University. She knows a lot about the effects of smoking on health. She is aware about the link between smoking and MS; I have drummed it into her for years. She also has first-hand experience with MS and has seen what MS can do to someone. She has attended one of our MS research days and has spoken to and seen many MSers. She attended my inaugural lecture and heard about MS. One of our neighbours has MS. When we moved into the area 12 years ago he was walking. He is now wheelchair bound, disinhibited with a severe speech impediment. When you speak to him now, it is hard to have a meaningful conversation; his speech is very slurred and laboured. Prior to his wheelchair we saw him fall several times in public. I have even seen him being incontinent in public once. He always used to be accompanied by friends; both girlfriends and boyfriends. When you see him now, you only see him with one of his carers. Social isolation has struck. My daughter knows him well; they are alumni of the same school. Surely the image of him has imprinted itself on my daughter’s brain. How could my daughter ignore my advice regarding smoking and MS? I suspect the attitude that 'it won’t happen to me' is hardwired into the teenage brain. 

The public health figures regarding teenage smoking are sobering. Interestingly, teenage boys seem to be smoking less, but the trend in girls remains upwards. 

Source: http://www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB14988/smok-eng-2014-rep.pdf

Source: http://www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB14988/smok-eng-2014-rep.pdf
One of the reasons we launched digesting science (www.digestingscience.co.uk) was to educate children of MSers about environmental risk factors linked to MS; in particular the link between low vitamin D levels and MS. We have always planned to add smoking to the mix, but have always wondered how responsive 6-12 year olds would be to an anti-smoking message. A better plan may be to finesse digesting science to cover teenagers? However, the coverage of digesting science is small and the message is unlikely to get to the general public.

On reflection the fine imposed on the BAT by the Canadians did not go far enough. May be the Canadian Government should have linked the fine to a defined target, for example if the rate in teenage smoking does not drop below 10% by 2025 they will double, triple or quadruple the fine. Nobody knows the black art of marketing to teenagers better than the tobacco industry; we should harness that expertise. A one off fine is unlikely to change their behaviour. Simply reducing teenage smoking to less than 10% will reduce the incidence of MS by 10-20% and in some countries by more; not to mention the impact on other autoimmune diseases.

Can anyone help? We need a prevention strategy that works. I hope there are some politicians reading this post.”

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