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Parents' Behavior Prompts Kids to Smoke

Children at higher risk if they're asked to light or buy cigarettes

MONDAY, Nov. 4, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- "Hey, kid! Got a light?"

When that question comes from a parent, the child is more likely to start smoking, reports a study being presented today at the 68th annual international scientific assembly of the American College of Chest Physicians in San Diego.

The risk also goes up when parents engage in other sorts of "prompting" behaviors, such as asking the child to clean out an ashtray or buy cigarettes at the store. Latino boys who were asked to light cigarettes for their parents were the most likely to become teenage smokers.

"It just makes sense," says Robert Baker, director of the Ochsner Center for the Elimination of Smoking in New Orleans. "The kids get the message at school or elsewhere that smoking is dangerous and then you have the caretaker say, 'Hand me my cigarettes.' The child is actually touching the dangerous thing. It becomes a gesture of caring and love. That serves to diminish the threat."

The researchers, based at San Diego State University, had already established that Latino parents who smoke frequently engaged in behaviors that seemed to prompt their children to smoke. In this study, the researchers sought to determine how prevalent these prompting behaviors were among different ethnic groups and to see if children and parents agreed on the frequency.

More than 3,000 seventh- and eighth-graders in San Diego were asked to complete a questionnaire about their parents' prompting behaviors. Parents completed a similar survey and, ultimately, information from 292 smoking parents and their children were compared.

Seven specific prompting behaviors were detailed in the questionnaire: cleaning ashtrays; fetching cigarettes for the parents; receiving tobacco-gear gifts; buying or lighting cigarettes for the parents; lighting a cigarette in the mouth for the parents; and smoking with the parents.

All told, Latino ethnicity, male gender and having received requests to light cigarettes were all predictive of youth smoking.

"We found this prompting across all ethnicities," says Dr. Rafael Laniado-Laborin, the study's principal investigator and an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public Health at San Diego State. He adds the group was predominantly Latino (64 percent). Mothers appeared to prompt more than fathers.

The biggest protective factor seemed to be a high familism score, meaning that family rated high on the child or parent's scale of values. "It was the most potent predictor of nonsmoking non-experimentation, and this was shown in all ethnic groups," Laniado-Laborin says.

Latino families had a higher rate of asking the child to light the cigarette in the mouth. "This is very Latino. We don't know why," Laniado-Laborin says. "It's been done for generations, but this is a very direct prompt. Kids will learn how to light up and will inhale smoke."

Interestingly, parents reported much lower rates of prompting behaviors than did their children. For instance, while only 8.9 percent of parents reported asking their children to clean ashtrays, 49.6 percent of the children reported being asked to do this. Only 27.5 percent of parents said they asked their children to bring their cigarettes, but more than twice that number of kids -- 59.6 percent -- reported that they had been asked to do this. Similarly, while 1.5 percent of parents admitted asking their child to provide a light for the cigarette, 13.8 percent of kids said they had done this.

The tendency on the part of the researchers was to believe the children. "There's no way you can prove it either way because this is a matter of perception, but kids really don't derive any advantage from saying their parents are prompting them," Laniado-Laborin says. "But smoking is not a sociable thing to do, so parents might want to present a good face."

Parents might also perceive the tasks in a larger category of household chores, without relating them specifically to smoking experimentation.

The child, on the other hand, might perceive the gestures as a tacit acceptance, if not encouragement, to smoke. There is also a practical aspect indoctrinating the child into a culture of smoking. "If you send a child to clean an ashtray, he will have access to cigarettes. If you send them to buy cigarettes, they will learn how to buy them," Laniado-Laborin says. "We think it's inadvertent. The parents don't do it on purpose. When we ask them, they say 'I tell my kids not to smoke.'"

What To Do

Part of the problem is that, according to this study, some kids purchased cigarettes for their parents -- a violation of law in many states that forbid tobacco sales to minors.

For more information on kids and smoking, visit the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids or the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Tips 4 Youth.

SOURCES: Rafael Laniado-Laborin, M.D., M.P.H., associate professor, Graduate School of Public Health, San Diego State University; Robert Baker, Ph.D., director, Ochsner Center for the Elimination of Smoking, New Orleans; Nov. 4, 2002, presentation, International Scientific Assembly, American College of Chest Physicians, San Diego
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