In two surveys spaced by a year's time, researchers from San Diego State University polled 478 7th and 8th graders, 12 to 15 years old, who had never tried cigarettes, not even a puff, asking them first how available cigarettes were and then whether they had decided to try smoking.
At the one-year mark, 6.3 percent of the students reported having tried a cigarette. When other conditions were factored in, the researchers found that those teens who had more access to cigarettes from parents and offers of smokes from other adults were more likely to try smoking during that one year.
"The main finding here is the role of social access," says James. F. Sallis, a professor of psychology at San Diego State and one of the co-authors of the study, published in the January/February issue of the American Journal of Health Behavior. By social access, he means availability of cigarettes, either because parents smoke them regularly and they are around the house, or because other adults offer the teens a cigarette.
"We've known for a long time that having parents who smoke is a risk factor," he adds. "But we didn't know why."
The researchers speculated it might be modeling -- the fact that parents who smoke might approve of teen smoking -- or simply the availability of cigarettes in a household where parents smoke.
"It looks like that very point, availability, is a main issue," Sallis says. "Modeling might be important, too."
But parental approval may not be as high on the list.
The kids in the study who found it easy to get cigarettes from around the house were not necessarily getting handouts, the authors emphasize.
More than 99 percent of the students said their parents would be upset about their smoking. So the speculation is that the students who found cigarettes around the house were pilfering them from their parents' supplies.
The authors conclude that, from a public health perspective, media campaigns to discourage adults from offering cigarettes to minors might be considered and might help the teen smoking problem.
Most daily smokers begin smoking before age 18, several studies confirm, and preventing teens from starting to smoke cigarettes in the first place is an important public health priority.
A California psychologist who is an expert in addictive behaviors says that the finding in the San Diego State study makes sense and that it mirrors what is known from alcohol studies; that increased availability boosts the chances of people drinking or drinking too much.
"Availability is a key issue" in explaining what factors contribute to people taking up habits such as smoking and drinking alcohol, sometimes to excess, says A. Thomas Horvath, who runs Practical Recovery Services, an addiction treatment center in La Jolla.
Sallis says the take-home point for parents who smoke is that they need to be more aware of how the availability affects their kids' decisions to smoke.
"Don't leave cigarettes lying around," he advises. "Keep them in a pack. Tear up smoked ones so there's not a third of a butt left [that can be relit and smoked]."
Horvath agrees. "If you don't want your children to smoke, you need to pay special attention to the availability [of cigarettes in your home]," he says.
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