FRIDAY, Sept. 16, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Despite decades of antismoking campaigns targeted at adolescents, a new study suggests smoking hasn't lost it cool: Researchers found that the more popular a student is in seventh grade, the more likely he or she is to smoke.
Popular kids may even light up to maintain their status, speculates the team of researchers from the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.
"The findings are disturbing," said Danny McGoldrick, a spokesman for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. He believes antismoking efforts may need to focus especially on popular kids to "get the kids that kids are taking their lead from."
The study appears in the October issue of the Journal of Adolescent Health.
Lead researcher Thomas W. Valente and colleagues surveyed nearly 1,500 students in the sixth grade, and then again in the seventh. All were students at Southern California high schools, where populations are ethnically mixed.
Student were classified as smokers if they had ever smoked, even a puff, and were termed susceptible if they did not rule out smoking again in the future. Popularity was gauged by the number of times a young person was named as a friend by other students in the same class.
When they compared the results, they found that the more popular a student was, the more likely he or she was to become a smoker during the study. The association was strongest for nonwhite boys.
The finding understandably dismayed the researchers, since it's well known that popular students' behaviors are imitated by other students.
In other findings, the study found that isolated students, who named no friends within the classroom, were also more likely to smoke -- a finding that's been corroborated by other studies as well. According to Valente, experts speculate that these "loner" kids associate with older friends outside the classroom who may have already taken up the habit.
One bit of good news is that the vast majority of students surveyed did not smoke -- a full 90 percent of sixth graders and 84 percent of seventh graders were nonsmokers.
Valente and his colleagues estimate that about 1 million people under the age of 18 start smoking annually in the United States. Not all of them keep smoking or become regular users, but research shows that between 80 percent and 90 percent of adults smokers started by age 18. So the goal of keeping kids smoke-free, especially popular teens, makes sense.
"Just because a teen is popular doesn't mean they are out of harm's way," he said. And he agreed that more attention needs to be paid to the "popular crowd" when recruiting students for tobacco-free lectures and programs.
The findings point to an even greater need to push for tobacco-free policies, McGoldrick added, "policies like smoke-free laws, tobacco taxes, but also programs that educate people about tobacco use and actually how uncommon it is."
For more on keeping kids from smoking, visit the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.