RAND Study Finds African American Teens Less Likely Than Others to Become Regular Smokers

For Release

February 3, 2004

A RAND Corporation study issued today says that even though most African American teenagers try smoking, they are less likely than whites and Hispanics to become regular smokers during adolescence and young adulthood.

The RAND Health study found that African Americans are less likely to continue or escalate their smoking for several reasons including: parental disapproval of smoking, having fewer friends who smoke, receiving fewer offers of cigarettes from peers, and not developing strong intentions to smoke in the future. The study was published in the February issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

“Our results suggest that we might be able to stop more young smokers from developing a regular habit by helping parents talk with their children about smoking, improving family bonds and dampening peer pressure to smoke,” said Phyllis L. Ellickson, lead author of the study.

RAND researchers tracked more than 6,000 African American, white, Hispanic, and Asian American youths for 10 years, from ages 13 to 23. The youngsters were recruited in 1985 from 30 California and Oregon middle schools for a RAND study of substance use. Over the 10-year study the students were surveyed multiple times about their substance use, including smoking, and about a range of psychological, social and behavioral factors.

Researchers found that by age 13, a total of 69 percent of Hispanic and 62 percent of African American youth had tried smoking, compared with 52 percent of white adolescents and only 36 percent of Asian American youth.

Although early smoking experimentation among adolescents is a known risk factor for escalation to regular smoking later on, the RAND researchers found that this doesn’t hold for African American youth.

By age 15, only 7 percent of African American teenagers in the study were regular smokers, on par with the low rate of 8 percent for Asian American youth. In contrast about 20 percent of both whites and Hispanics had become regular smokers. At age 23, African Americans and Asian Americans were still substantially less likely to be regular smokers than whites and Hispanics.

“This study indicates that African American youth try smoking early but then quit early on,” Ellickson said. “Even those African Americans who fail to quit smoking maintain their smoking habit at lower levels than whites and Hispanics from adolescence to young adulthood.”

Researchers looked at study participants’ responses to questions about life circumstances that might influence their smoking. The study examined: social influence (such as parental approval of smoking, peer smoking and cigarette offers); social bonds (such as school grades and talking to parents about personal problems); problem behavior (such as rebelliousness and marijuana or alcohol use); and pro-smoking attitudes (such as beliefs about smoking and ability to resist pro-smoking influences).

The study found that after age 13 or 14, the social environment of African American youth is less conducive to smoking, essentially dampening its escalation from experimentation to a regular habit. For example, the proportion of African American youth with a best friend who smokes drops around this age, as do the number of cigarette offers they receive. In addition, African American youth are more likely to encounter parental disapproval of smoking and to communicate with parents about personal problems.

These positive social influences are so strong, say the researchers, that they offset other risk factors for smoking, such as doing poorly in school. In the RAND study group, the African American students had significantly worse grades than whites throughout middle school and high school.

Asian American youth maintained low rates of smoking experimentation and escalation to regular smoking throughout the 10-year study period. This was attributed to their low scores on psychological, behavioral, and social risk factors for smoking.

In addition to Ellickson, RAND researchers Maria Orlando, Joan S. Tucker, and David J. Klein also worked on the study. The research was supported by a grant from the University of California Tobacco-Related Disease Prevention Program.

RAND Health is the nation’s largest independent health policy research organization, with a broad research portfolio that focuses on health care quality, costs and delivery, among other topics.

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