Smoking And Preschoolers: Does Familiarity Breed Attempts?

November 10, 1998

DALLAS, Nov. 10 -- Preschoolers whose mothers smoked cigarettes were six times more likely to say they would take up the habit when they grow up than children from smoke-free homes, according to a survey presented today at the American Heart Association's 71st Scientific Sessions.

Children whose fathers smoked were three times more likely than kids of non-smoking fathers to want to smoke later in life. Researchers surveyed 504 children, 46 percent African American and 28 percent Hispanic, at nursery schools and Head Start centers in upstate New York. The children, age 3 to 5 years old, were participating in the Healthy Start project, a health education program geared to preschoolers.

"Parents don't realize how much they influence their kids," says the study's lead author, Christine L. Williams, M.D., M.P.H., director of the child health center at the American Health Foundation, Valhalla, N.Y. "They think they can tell their kids 'I smoke but you shouldn't,' and that will be enough -- but it isn't. Those early influences are hard to undo."

The children were shown pictures of Barney, Mickey Mouse and Joe Camel and asked which of the three characters smoked. Two-thirds correctly chose Joe Camel, although his picture contained no cigarettes, Williams says.

The survey found that 46 percent of children thought smoking was "cool," and 55 percent said they planned to smoke as adults. "This emphasizes that children are already forming attitudes at an early age about what's cool or attractive to them and what's not," she says.

Researchers say the study reinforces the importance of getting parents involved in smoking prevention programs -- and getting parents to quit. Williams notes that 70 percent of the children lived with a smoker. In 15 percent of the families, both parents smoked.

"Staff members at some of the schools we have gone to have asked why people should talk to kids about smoking at this age," she says. "Parents should realize it's important to talk to young children because of how much they already know about smoking."

Anti-smoking messages from outside the home may not be enough, says Williams. Children in early elementary school have had a lot more educational exposure, and they've learned that society in general doesn't approve of smoking, she says. "From this type of exposure, children may respond and say they aren't going to smoke, but of course many of them do later on."

The survey highlights the importance of good role models early in life, says Williams. "Children love their parents and want to be like them. If their parents smoke, they are going to think it's OK."

A lot of mothers quit when they're pregnant and then resume smoking after pregnancy, says Williams. "If they can only stay off cigarettes after pregnancy, they're benefiting their child's health by reducing the risk of respiratory infections, asthma, ear infections and the risk of their child becoming a smoker and developing all the problems related to smoking like heart disease, cancer and emphysema."

Although peer influences are definitely strong, the early influences in the home may have longer lasting impressions and show a clear way to reduce the likelihood of smoking, says Williams.

The American Heart Association has been a long-time supporter of legislation to prohibit unregulated advertising, marketing or promotion of tobacco products to children. In addition, the AHA says that the public, especially children, should be protected from environmental tobacco smoke. In 1992, the AHA's Council on Cardiopulmonary and Critical Care concluded that environmental tobacco smoke is a major preventable cause of cardiovascular disease and death.

Co-authors include: Catherine Ibanez, M.A., and Barbara A. Strobino, Ph.D.
For more information Nov. 8-11 contact Carole Bullock or Berna Creel at the Dallas County Convention Center: (214) 853-8056

American Heart Association

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