Adult influences may predispose teens to smoke

December 28, 2002

Social influences play a large role in getting teens to start smoking cigarettes, underscoring the need to supplement laws that regulate tobacco purchase with strategies to reduce teens' access through people they know, like parents and other adults, according to a new survey of nearly 500 teens.

"Although it is important to continue to reduce commercial availability of tobacco to minors, these results suggest it is essential to develop strategies to decrease social availability, particularly from parents and other adults," says study author Susan I. Woodruff, Ph.D., an adjunct professor at San Diego State University's Graduate School of Public Health in San Diego, Calif.

Sales laws have succeeded in decreasing commercial availability of tobacco to teens, although adolescent smoking rates have not yet decreased as a result. Most smokers start before age 18, and more than 3,000 young people become regular smokers daily, according to the study.

Woodruff and colleagues explored the social aspects of smoking initiation with the help of 478 seventh- and eighth-graders, 12 to 15 years old, who had never tried "even a puff" of tobacco. The students, more than half of whom were Hispanic, took a smoking survey on two occasions, spaced a year apart.

More than 6 percent of the participants reported having tried smoking one year after the first survey. To find out how these students differed from those who hadn't smoked, Woodruff and colleagues performed a prospective analysis, which watches study participants over time as behaviors or conditions develop. They found that at the start of the one-year study period, those students who reported a greater ease of getting cigarettes from parents and more cigarette offers from adults who weren't their parents were more likely to try smoking during the subsequent year.

"These findings suggest that reducing social access and access at home may be important in controlling experimentation among younger adolescents," Woodruff says. The study results are published in the January/February issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior.

The kids who found it easy to get cigarettes from their parents weren't necessarily getting cigarette handouts. Instead, another study finding -- that more than 99 percent of the students reported that their parents would be upset about their smoking cigarettes -- suggests these students may have been swiping cigarettes from their parents.

"More in-depth surveys and formative research are needed to better understand the dynamics of adult and parent provision of cigarettes to adolescents," Woodruff notes.

In addition to their prospective analysis, the researchers performed a cross-sectional analysis, which is a snapshot of a point in time. This analysis revealed that cigarette offers from friends and classmates were the strongest predictors of smoking. This finding could be interpreted two ways: Offers from friends may lead to smoking, or teens who have tried smoking may associate with others who smoke, according to the study.

One thing is clear from the study findings: Social sources, whether peers or adults, were more important as a means for teens to get cigarettes for experimentation than commercial sources. This social influence will increase over time, according to Woodruff.

"Social sources will likely become more important for underage smokers because of continuing retail price increases and increased retailer compliance with sales laws," she says.

Woodruff and colleagues recommend media campaigns to raise parental and community awareness about teens' social access to cigarettes. Such efforts "may be effective in further reducing availability and ultimately producing lower adolescent smoking rates," Woodruff concludes.
-end-
This research was funded by the California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
Health Behavior News Service: 202-387-2829 or www.hbns.org.
Interviews: Contact Susan I. Woodruff, PhD, at swoodruf@mail.sdsu.edu.
American Journal of Health Behavior: Visit www.ajhb.org or e-mail eglover@hsc.wvu.edu.

Center for Advancing Health

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