Both are social issues that are reinforced by social norms. And both have enormous public health consequences in addition to the negative impact on individuals. Here in Mississippi, treatment of tobacco-related diseases costs our state $264 million each year in direct medicare costs alone. By comparison, teen pregnancy costs Mississippi $154 million per year in the form of lost tax revenues, incarceration and foster care.
But it’s important to keep in mind one very important difference between teen tobacco use and teen pregnancy: The consequence of tobacco initiation is often disease and early death. The consequence of premarital sexual activity is, in many cases, a living, breathing little human being.
You can strip away the false glamor of smoking and expose cigarettes as a dangerous, addictive product. But, when it comes to teen pregnancy prevention, you have to be very careful not to devalue the human life that can result. Babies are great – just not when you’re 15. Raising a child is a wonderful and rewarding thing. But when you’re still in school? Forget it.
Getting back to the similarities, the toughest challenge for any youth-targeted prevention program is that teens have a hard time anticipating and fully appreciating future consequences. You have to portray the consequences in a way that’s real, relevant and credible to their lives. You have to get that message out and let them hear it over and over and over. Not just for one week during school.