It was on an ordinary day that Jimmy Carter’s father pulled his son aside for a conversation. “Jimmy,” he said (and he never called his son Jimmy,), “I need to talk to you about something important.” “Yes, sir daddy,” Jimmy replied. “There is something I want you to promise me,” his father continued, “I don’t want you to smoke a cigarette until you are twenty one years old.”
This was the late 1930s, when something like 40% of the population smoked, when cigarettes could still be marketed to children and advertisements made claims like, “More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette!” Carter’s dad himself was hopelessly hooked too. “I won’t,” Jimmy promised. And then his father sweetened the deal, “When the time comes, I’ll give you a gold watch.”
When he was 21, then in the Naval Academy, he finally tried smoking. By then, it was too late. He’d missed his window and he hated it. He never smoked another. Tragically, Carter’s mother and three of Jimmy’ siblings followed in his father’s footsteps. Each one of them died of pancreatic cancer. Carter, as it happens, is still alive at age 96.
You’d think that 90 years later, this conversation would be moot. Sadly, it isn’t. Over 34 million Americans are still hopelessly addicted to tobacco. Now with vaping and the legalization of pot, over 5 million youths around the U.S. use e-cigarettes and over 3 million use marijuana. Lung cancers, connected to smoking, kill nearly 500,000 people a year. Globally, 7 million. It’s naive to just hope your kids won’t smoke.
You have to make them promise, as Carter’s father did. That was great. But you have to learn from his failure too. You have to lead by example also. The costs of not doing it could cost you everything.