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Teens’ smoking influenced by older siblings, parents’ lifelong smoking habits

Teens who smoke are significantly influenced by whether older siblings smoke as well as if their parents smoke now or did in the past, according to research from Purdue University.

“It’s no surprise that the children of smoked, but what is surprising is that the rate of teens whose parents started smoking later in life or who had quit or reduced their smoking was just as high, if not higher,” said , an assistant professor of sociology who studies youth behavior and substance use. “The children of later-life smokers were 29 percent more likely to smoke, and that number was higher than children of heavy smokers or those whose parents started smoking as teenagers but had quit or reduced their amount.

“Even though these rates are high, young teens are more likely to smoke if an older sibling does, or if they live with a parent who is a heavy smoker. Based on these findings, antismoking prevention for youth really needs to target the children of parents who smoked at any time in their life, as well as if siblings are smoking.”

The findings are published in Pediatrics, and the National Institutes of Health funded the work. The data is based on 214 adults who have been surveyed regularly since 1988 beginning at age 14 in the . This data covers the adults up to age 38. The 314 children of these adults were ages 11-19. Vuolo, who led the study, also worked with Jeremy Staff, an associate professor of criminology and sociology at Penn State University. The is run by the University of Minnesota.

“Parents’ influence on is not new, but the quality of this data has followed the parents for more than 20 years and shows the history of their smoking patterns, specifically length and amount, and how that has affected their children,” Vuolo said.

Most previous research also is based on one-time surveys that rely on retrospective feedback from parents.

Because parents’ smoking could be tracked for 24 years, the parents could be separated into four groups: non-smokers, heavy smokers, light smokers or those who had quit, and late-onset smokers who didn’t start smoking until early adulthood. Eight percent of non-smokers’ children had smoked in the past year and 25 percent the children of heavy smokers (at least half a pack a day) reported smoking. The data showed that children of parents who started smoking as teenagers and who had quit or reduced their smoking by age 38 smoked at a rate 23 percent, and the highest percentage of youth smoking, at 29 percent, was by children of parents who started smoking later in life in their 20s.

“The similarities for the three smoking groups were surprising,” Vuolo said. “I thought the children of smokers who had reduced their smoking or quit would be significantly lower than the other two groups. We controlled for many variables, such as socioeconomic status and the relationship between the parent and child, but nothing stands out why this is. So we’d like to take a closer look at individual specifics – did parents smoke in front of children or were children exposed to their efforts to quit? More than half of these parents quit smoking, and some of these parents quit smoking when their children were young, so how did that influence their children?”

While the influence of parents’ smoking history is attention grabbing, Vuolo said it is important to not overlook the sibling effect.

An older sibling who smokes is 15 times more likely to occur in the heavy smoking households than the non-smoking households, and a younger sibling is six times more likely to smoke if they have an older sibling who smokes.

“In fact, if there was a sibling present in the light smoking or the early-onset smoking environment the effect still holds; it’s just that it’s much more likely to happen in the heavy smoking households,” Vuolo said.

Vuolo plans to continue looking at this topic as well as similar parental influences in alcohol use.

“One aspect to keep in mind is that other research shows that heavy smokers are more likely to have children at younger ages, so they may be overrepresented in this population because they have teenagers at age 38,” Vuolo said. “If we did the same analysis 10 years from now, when the non-smokers’ children are more likely to be teenagers, what would we see?”


Mike Vuolo and Jeremy Staff “Parent and Child Cigarette Use: A Longitudinal, Multigenerational Study” Pediatrics, published online August 5, 2013, doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-0067

Purdue University