$12 million grant to study young adult smoking behaviors

September 22, 2010

The University of Illinois at Chicago has received a $12.4 million grant from the National Cancer Institute to study the predictors of smoking patterns from adolescence through young adulthood.

The grant builds on previous research conducted at UIC to better understand why some kids try cigarettes and quit, while others go on to become regular smokers.

The project will follow approximately 1,200 Chicago-area youth, first identified during mid-adolescence, who are now entering young adulthood -- the period of highest risk for establishing smoking and dependence, said Robin Mermelstein, professor of psychology and director of UIC's Institute for Health Research and Policy.

"We have a large group of individuals who we started to follow when they were in 9th and 10th grade," Mermelstein said. "Now they are transitioning into young adulthood, when there are multiple risks that they are encountering, such as tobacco use, increased alcohol use and a variety of other risky behaviors that may make them more vulnerable to developing a whole host of negative health outcomes."

Rates of smoking among adolescents have declined, but unfortunately, not fast enough, according to Mermelstein.

Recent studies have shown that in 2008, almost 45 percent of high school seniors smoked during the preceding 30 days, and 11 percent smoked daily.

The multi-level study will focus on the social and emotional contexts that may influence smoking and explore genetic markers for the development of dependence.

The researchers want to track the young adults in their day-to-day lives to find out how they are feeling, to learn what tobacco advertising they are exposed to, and to assess how their social lives and perceived pressures change in this very transitional time, according to Mermelstein, principal investigator of the study.

The researchers will conduct one-on-one interviews using personal digital assistants to ask participants about their environment, emotions and relationships, and perform laboratory-based psychophysiological assessments.

They hope to identify protective factors that reduce the risk for becoming tobacco-dependent, to better understand the prompts that help young adult smokers quit, and to learn how young adults might use smoking to regulate their moods.

Mermelstein's previous research, funded by a $13 million NCI grant in 2004, provided important clues about why early adolescents are vulnerable to tobacco dependence.

Smoking helps to make them feel better, Mermelstein said. It gives them an emotional boost, helps them cope with feeling down, or gives them a sense of social belonging.

The investigators also discovered that messages from parents matter, even when the parents are smokers. "What we've learned is they can still give effective messages about hoping their child doesn't smoke, reasons not to smoke, and setting clear boundaries and expectancies for consequences for what might happen if they smoke," said Mermelstein, a member of the UIC Cancer Center's Cancer Control and Population Science Research Program.

The new grant will aid in understanding how those parental messages influence future smoking and how parents can be more effective in conveying strong and lasting messages for their teenagers.

"Although most people focus on younger ages as the point of smoking initiation, it's that transition right after finishing high school, filled with so many developmental changes, when we see big jumps in cigarette smoking," Mermelstein said.
-end-
Co-investigators of the study include Michael Berbaum, Edwin Cook, Kathleen Diviak, and Donald Hedeker from the UIC Cancer Center's Cancer Control and Population Science Research Program; Jon Kassel from UIC; Dale Cannon, Hilary Coon, William McMahon, and Robert Weiss from the University of Utah; Lisa Dierker and Jennifer Rose from Wesleyan University; and Lauren Wakschlag from Northwestern University.

An extended interview as MP3 audio file is available at http://www.uic.edu/depts/paff/newsbureau/podcasts.html

Photographs of Robin Mermelstein are available at http://newsphoto.lib.uic.edu/v/mermelstein/

For more information about UIC, visit www.uic.edu

University of Illinois at Chicago

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