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Kids Don't Snuff Out Parental Smoking Warnings

Survey finds far fewer smokers among kids whose parents disapprove of the habit

FRIDAY, Dec. 21, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Parents may feel like they're talking to a wall when advising their kids not to smoke, but new research suggests their words of caution may have more impact than they think.

According to a study published in the current issue of the American Academy of Pediatrics' journal Pediatrics, kids who say their parents strongly disapprove of their smoking are far less likely to take up the habit.

The study surveyed 663 students in grades four through 11 at three Vermont schools on how their parents would react if they found out they smoked.

Students were asked to pick from multiple-choice responses, ranging from "don't know" to expecting their parents would be very upset and demand that they stop.

Among the students who reported the strongest likely objections from both parents, only 5 percent reported having smoked more than 100 cigarettes in their lives.

Meanwhile, the smoking rate was 15 percent among students who said one parent would strongly disapprove, and 32 percent among students who reported that neither parent would strongly disapprove.

"There's a widespread belief that most kids act on their own or according to peer influences," says Madeline Dalton, an assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School and co-author on the study.

"But this research may serve as a pleasant surprise, indicating that many kids do respect what their parents say and that parental approval or disapproval does make a difference in behavior," says Dalton.

Surprisingly, the figures were not significantly different even if one parent or both parents smoked, says co-author Dr. James Sargent, an associate professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School.

"If the kids perceived that their parents disapproved of smoking, it didn't really matter whether the parents smoked or not, it had the same affect on them," he says.

The study authors caution that because the survey only included white students in largely rural Vermont, the results may not reflect behaviors in other areas.

But Sargent says the research is nevertheless important because of relatively high rates of smoking among rural white youth.

"Largely white, rural areas in fact have one of the highest rates of teen smokers in the country -- if not the highest," Sargent says.

"Rural white kids are at extremely high risk for taking up smoking," he adds. "It's part of the culture. They may live in towns where a lot of people smoke and it may just be more accepted."

The American Lung Association (ALA) reports that at least 4.5 million youths between 11 and 17 years of age are smokers. And, an estimated 25 percent of high school students smoked cigarettes as of 1999.

Among those who become regular smokers, approximately one-third will eventually die of smoking-related illnesses, says the ALA.

Child psychiatrist Dr. Henry J. Gault, a spokesman for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, says a key motivating factor in kids' responses to parental wishes is the general quality of the family relationship.

"It's typically seen that kids who have reasonably good relationships with their parents wind up taking in [their parents'] values during much of their adolescence and into adulthood," he says.

Among the classic mistakes parents can make that can undermine efforts to prevent their children from smoking -- or doing just about anything else that's potentially harmful to their health -- is overreacting.

"Parents can cause trouble by coming down too hard on the negative side," says Gault. "It becomes a problem when it turns into a power struggle, because then kids wind up doing whatever it is you don't want them to do just to be defiant."

Gault suggests that instead of threatening teens with "being grounded" or other strong disciplinary measures, parents should reason with them, address them more maturely and discuss the issue on a more realistic level.

"The smoking issue should be about the teen-ager and their lungs, not a power struggle between mom and dad," he says.

"A wise approach might be to sit down and just say something like, 'Look, I know I can't ultimately stop you from smoking because I can't always be with you. But these are your lungs that could be harmed.' [You should] try to express your concern," Gault says.

What to Do: Visit the American Lung Association for extensive information on teens and smoking. And this American Medical Association site discusses preventing tobacco use in children and adolescents.

SOURCES: Interviews with Madeline Dalton, Ph.D., assistant professor in pediatrics, and James Sargent, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics, both Dartmouth Medical School, Hanover, New Hampshire; Henry J. Gault, M.D., spokesman, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; December 2001 Pediatrics journal
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