Peer pressure to smoke depends on ethnicity

June 03, 2001

USC study finds stronger link between peer pressure and smoking among white teen-agers than minority teen-agers

LOS ANGELES, June 4--Not all teen-agers are created equal, at least when it comes to smoking and peer pressure, according to a study led by preventive medicine researchers at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California. White teen-agers are more likely to smoke due to peer pressure from their friends than are teen-agers from other ethnic groups, the researchers report in the June issue of Nicotine & Tobacco Research, the journal of the Society for Research on Nicotine and Tobacco.

Tobacco use prevention programs may need to be customized to different ethnic groups to be more effective, says Jennifer B. Unger, Ph.D., research assistant professor at the USC Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research and the study's lead author.

The researchers asked 5,870 eighth-graders from 68 schools throughout California about smoking habits and attitudes: whether they had smoked in the last 30 days and whether they were open to trying tobacco. They also asked the students about social influence: how many of their friends smoked, and how prevalent they believed smoking to be among students their age.

Unger and colleagues then analyzed the responses to see how students' own smoking habits and attitudes related to social influence. Friends' smoking was less strongly associated with students' smoking behavior and attitudes among minority students than it was among whites, the researchers found. The link between having friends who smoke and being open to trying smoking was stronger among whites than among African Americans, Latinos and Pacific Islanders. Also, the link between having friends who smoke and smoking in the past 30 days was stronger among whites than among African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos and Pacific Islanders.

Unger and colleagues believe that minority teen-agers may be less affected by peer pressure from friends than white students because Asian, Latin-American and African-American cultures tend to emphasize collective communities rather than individualism.

Teen-agers from collective cultural backgrounds are less likely to separate themselves and rebel from the social norms of their parents and the larger adult society, the researchers say, so they may be less likely to model themselves after rebellious teen-agers who smoke.

But rebellion seems to be more accepted among white teenagers, they note, possibly because the United States and the western European countries from which many U.S. whites originate are individualistic cultures.

Still, though white teen-agers might be more likely to choose to smoke because of peer pressure or cigarette offers from peers, they are not necessarily more likely to smoke. Latino and multi-ethnic students were more likely to report they smoked within the last 30 days or were open to trying a cigarette than were white students. Asian-American and African-American students were least susceptible to smoking.

Most socially based smoking-prevention programs try to teach teens to say no and correct their conceptions about how common smoking is among their peers. "However, if peer influences vary across ethnic groups, these prevention programs may not be equally effective across ethnic groups," the authors say. "The results of this study suggest that ethnic minority adolescents from collectivist cultural backgrounds may smoke for reasons other than peer pressure."

Adds Unger: "As the U.S. population becomes increasingly multicultural, it will become increasingly important to develop adolescent smoking prevention programs that will be relevant and effective for adolescents of diverse cultural backgrounds."

Data were collected as part of the Independent Evaluation of the California Tobacco Control, Prevention and Education Program, which was funded by the state tobacco tax through a contract with the Gallup Organization, USC, and Stanford University.
Jennifer B. Unger, Louise Ann Rohrbach, Tess Boley Cruz, Lourdes Baezconde-Garbanati, Kim Ammann Howard, Paula H. Palmer and C. Anderson Johnson, Ethnic Variation in peer influences on adolescent smoking. Nicotine & Tobacco Research, Vol 3, No. 2, June, 2001.

University of Southern California

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