Kids Of Divorce More Likely To Grow Up To Be Smokers--Sons At Risk To Be Problem Drinkers, Too

September 11, 1998

Boys and girls whose parents divorce are more likely to smoke as adults than are children from intact families, but only the sons of divorced parents face a higher probability of becoming problem drinkers, according to new research.

"Parental divorce has serious consequences for the physiological well-being of offspring," reports Nicholas H. Wolfinger, PhD, of the University of Utah, Salt Lake City, in the September Journal of Health and Social Behavior. "Efforts at substance (abuse) education and prevention should concentrate on the children of divorce."

Wolfinger examined data collected from 1977 to 1994 as part of the National Opinion Research Council's General Social Survey. During that period, researchers interviewed more than 11,000 people representing a cross-section of households in the United States.

For both boys and girls, parental divorce increased the likelihood of smoking in adulthood by about one-third, compared with children who grew up in intact homes. If their mothers remarried, the divorce-linked effect on smoking was dampened somewhat for girls, but not for boys.

In contrast, divorce increased the likelihood of problem drinking in adulthood for boys but not for girls, whose rate of problem drinking was similar to that seen in girls of intact families. Remarriage, however, appears to erase the effects of divorce on problem drinking for men: those whose mothers remarried had the same level of problem drinking as those who grew up in intact families.

Wolfinger reports that one factor known to influence future smoking "socioeconomic status" explained only part of the relationship between divorce and future smoking, but not between divorce and future drinking. Similarly, measures of the children's psychological and social adjustment did not explain future rates of smoking or problem drinking.

"The children of divorce are clearly at high risk to become smokers and problem drinkers," Wolfinger says. "In an age when more than half of first marriages end in divorce, this finding very clearly tells us where prevention efforts should be directed."

The Journal of Health and Social Behavior is a peer-reviewed quarterly publication of the American Sociological Association. For information about the Journal, contact its editor, John Mirowsky, (614) 688-8673.

Posted by the Center for the Advancement of Health For information about the Center, contact Richard Hebert, (202) 387-2829.

Center for Advancing Health

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