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Works and Progress

Seeing Through the Smoke

By Michael D. Smart, ‘97

Students at hypothetical Suburban High School, mostly white, aspire to attend college as their parents did. Many of their teachers have graduate degrees. At City High School on the other side of town, ethnic minorities make up a vast majority of the student body. Many come from single-parent families and struggle in school.

Guess which school’s students are at the highest risk of smoking?

According to a stereotype-shattering study by a BYU professor, Suburban High’s pupils are much more likely to take up smoking. The research has shown that students at academically competitive schools are more likely to begin smoking than students at other schools and that schools attended predominantly by minority students deter smoking among minority students.

“Very little research has looked at schools’ impact on adolescent behavior like smoking. Determining how certain school characteristics influence smoking is an important step in helping young people avoid the habit,” said associate professor of sociology John P. Hoffmann, who published the findings in the winter issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. The study was coauthored by Robert A. Johnson, senior research scientist at the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center.

Culling data from a national survey of more than 30,000 teenagers conducted in the late 1980s with follow-ups through 1992, Hoffmann and Johnson statistically tested the influence of various factors on smoking. They focused on the common characteristics of students who identified themselves as nonsmokers at the survey’s inception but had begun smoking daily by the first follow-up questionnaire two years later.

Previous research on adolescent smoking risk focused only on personal and familial characteristics like gender, self-esteem, delinquency, number of parents in the home, relationships with parents, and family income. This is the first study that accounts for those factors and looks for broader, school-based effects.

“We’ve isolated the school effect down to two very interesting outcomes,” says Hoffman.

Competitive Risk

The researchers found that students at highly competitive schools are more likely to take up smoking than students with similar levels of academic performance at less competitive schools, an effect that was slightly stronger among girls. They defined a school’s competitive environment by examining factors like the number of teachers with graduate degrees, the ambitions of students for higher education, parents’ educational attainment, and low incidence of such discipline problems as vandalism and violence. Even after factoring potential mitigating factors like grade point average and family situation, competition’s effect remained strong.

“Those are the schools where parents probably want to send their children, and yet children going there might have problems that we don’t yet recognize, problems like cigarette smoking that have long-term consequences,” said Hoffmann.

Johnson explained that the frustration that accompanies what parents, teachers, and students perceive as failure tends to be more intensely felt at schools that attach high importance to achievement.

“Frustration and loss of self-esteem, more than anything else, cause many apparently privileged adolescents to take up cigarette smoking,” he said. “It serves the adolescent’s need to express an alternative identity that rejects the institutions that put him or her down.”

The increased effect among girls might be explained by other bodies of research that have shown women have a heightened sensitivity to stress and are more likely to act out under stress, Hoffmann said. It is also possible, he noted, that it resulted from a broader trend at the time of the surveys. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a higher percentage of young women were smokers than young men. That disparity has since closed.

Minority Students and Smoking

The study also found that the higher the percentage of minorities in a school, the lower the risk of smoking among minorities. Since minority adolescents as a group smoke at lower rates than whites, this finding might not appear noteworthy on its own, but Hoffmann and Johnson went one step further and accounted for factors like ethnicity, family situation, and economic status. Even when a minority teen might be more prone to smoking because of a risk factor like living with a single parent, the school can still positively influence his or her behavior.

“We created a statistical image of an average teen, controlling for all other factors, and if you put that teen in a high-minority school, the risk of starting smoking is going to be lower than in a school with more whites,” Hoffmann explained. “The minority teens who are attending high-minority schools have a protective effect against initiating cigarette smoking.”

Although the researchers did not conduct cause-and-effect experiments, Hoffmann attributed this phenomenon to a synergism among minority students already ethnically disinclined to smoke.

“Students have an interconnected mass of peers–kids outside their circle of friends–they’re exposed to in all sorts of ways at school. When you have this critical mass that’s not involved in a particular behavior, that’s going to make the behavior less attractive,” Hoffmann said. “All communities, including schools, have customs and habits that don’t appeal to community members because other people in the community are avoiding them.”

Understanding Teen Smoking

A barrage of statistics underlines the importance of understanding and preventing adolescent smoking: 90 percent of the Americans who try cigarette smoking do so before age 17. More than a third of those who try progress to daily use. Three-quarters of individuals who smoked daily as high school seniors still smoke daily eight years later, even though only 5 percent anticipated they would still be smoking.

“Cigarette use is as hard an addiction to break as any ever shown,” said Hoffman, who has researched drug use for 10 years. “It’s linked so directly to lung cancer, other cancers, and other diseases, and we’ve still got a quarter of the population smoking. We want to understand why teens are doing it.”

“It is much more difficult to understand why adolescents begin to smoke cigarettes and progress to daily use than to understand why smokers continue to smoke daily,” Hoffmann and Johnson wrote.

The pair hopes the study, funded by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, can be a starting point for new approaches to helping teens avoid ever lighting up in the first place.

“We should regard adolescent smokers with as much sympathy and understanding as possible and should try to understand why an adolescent smokes from his or her own point of view,” Johnson said. “Sometimes it is not easy to understand because smoking is being used to express values and attitudes which the adolescent is unable or unwilling to express verbally. It can take an investment of time and effort by parents or other adults to figure out what the underlying problem is.”

Johnson and Hoffman’s research has helped unwind some of the complicated tangle of factors that increase a teen’s likelihood of smoking. “We found that at least a couple of school factors do influence smoking in addition to families and other risk factors,” Hoffman said. “So schools can make a difference.”?

Michael D. Smart is a media relations manager for BYU University Communications.