Peer pressure matters in young adults' smoking decisions

September 03, 2002

The peer pressure that leads young people into bad habits like smoking may also be a factor in getting them to quit, suggests a new study examining the social influence on young smokers.

The study also found that teens whose parents strongly disapproved of them smoking or whose best friends did not smoke, may be less likely to continue to do so after first trying it.

The study, in the September issue of Nicotine & Tobacco Research, followed 278 male and 433 female smokers for five years starting in their senior year of high school in 1990. The researchers focused on five factors that might influence smoking: peer pressure and parental approval, beliefs about smoking, rebelliousness, substance abuse and problem behaviors, social bonds (at school and with family and peers) and perceived health status.

"Although many of these variables had been investigated as possible predictors of quitting among adolescents in previous research, the goal of this study was to determine whether these variables might be useful in understanding the smoking-cessation process during the transition from late adolescence to young adulthood," explains lead author Joan S. Tucker, Ph.D., of the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, Calif.

Tucker and her colleagues were particularly interested in seeing if there were any differences between male and female participants in these predictors, given that gender can play a role in ability to quit and effectiveness of several cessation programs.

The researchers used questionnaires to assess the high school students' beliefs and social structures. For instance, to assess peer pressure and parental approval, they asked the teens whether the adult most important to them was a smoker, how often they were with people their own age who smoked, how often their best friend smoked and whether their parents and friends would approve of them smoking.

To evaluate smoking-related beliefs, they asked the participants about their intentions to smoke in the future, ability to resist social pressures to smoke and beliefs about the harmful effects of smoking. Questions included: "Do you believe smoking relaxes you? That smoking makes you do poorly in sports? Makes you feel more at ease with others? Gets you into trouble at school? Or can harm other people (not just you)?"

Participants also provided information on their history and frequency of substance abuse, and involvement in any problem behaviors, including a wide range of behaviors such as early pregnancy, stealing and skipping school.

After five years, 12 percent of the males and 17 percent of the females said they had quit and hadn't smoked in a year. Issues such as rebelliousness, problem behaviors and perceived physical and mental health had no effect on whether or not participants had quit smoking.

Among male participants, those from "broken homes" were less likely to have quit, as were those who had been offered cigarettes in high school. High school girls who'd been offered cigarettes did not show the same predisposition to still be smokers years later, even though they were more likely than boys to receive offers of cigarettes. The researchers also noted that this sex difference did not appear to be due to male smokers being more heavily addicted than female smokers.

"Ruling out these alternative explanations suggests that there are implicit or explicit social pressures involved in being offered a cigarette, even during the period of emerging adulthood," the authors note, "and that male smokers have more difficulty resisting these pressures."

Both male and female students who earned lower grades in high school were less likely to have quit. Females were less likely to have quit if they'd believed in high school that they couldn't resist the temptation to smoke.

The researchers also found that females were more likely to have quit if their parents had disapproved of their smoking during high school, but not necessarily if the parents were nonsmokers. They were also more likely to have quit if their high school friends were non-smokers. "Both associations with cessation could be explained by smoking quantity," explains Tucker, "with lighter smokers reporting less parental approval of smoking and less smoking among friends."

Also, she notes, parents who disapprove of their children's smoking may be more likely to discuss smoking and use disciplinary actions against it, both of which limit children's ability to smoke and increase the likelihood that they'll eventually quit. Similarly, teens having fewer friends who smoke means having fewer smoking models as well as reduced access to cigarettes.

"Results from this study should prove useful in highlighting a number of psychosocial factors in late adolescence that are important barriers to smoking cessation during the five-year period immediately following the high school years," Tucker writes.

The research was supported by a grant from the Tobacco-Related Disease and Research Program administered by the University of California, Berkeley.
Health Behavior News Service: (202) 387-2829 or
Interviews: Contact Warren Robak, (310) 451-6913 or
Nicotine & Tobacco Research: Contact Gary E. Swan, Ph.D., at (650) 859-5322.

Center for Advancing Health

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