New research strongly suggests that pre-teens who have a boyfriend or girlfriend are much more likely to take up smoking than those who don’t.
Dr. Jenny Fidler and her team at the Cancer Research UK Health Behavior Unit at University College London are investigating how personality is linked to smoking, in the hope of developing more effective anti-smoking campaigns. They wrote about their findings in the December 2006 issue of the journal Addiction.
Dr. Fidler and her team recruited 4,319 children at 36 London schools. The children filled out anonymous questionnaires about their behavior and smoking habits every year. Their nicotine intake was checked by testing their saliva for a chemical called cotinine, a smoking byproduct. Twenty-nine percent of girls and 18 percent of boys aged 11 to 12 said they had a boyfriend or girlfriend. Significantly more of these children began smoking by age 13 than those who said they did not have a boyfriend or girlfriend.
“We found a clear link between children who started dating at a young age and taking up smoking,” Dr. Fidler said. “Those who said that they’d had a boyfriend or girlfriend when 11 or 12 years old were at least twice as likely as their non-dating peers to start smoking in the next five years.”
Girls who started dating in their pre-teen years were nine times more likely than non-dating girls to have started smoking at age 13. They were three times more likely to have started smoking by the time they were old enough to leave school. Boys who dated at ages 11 and 12 were six times more likely to have started smoking at age 13, and twice as likely to take up smoking as non-dating boys.
Dr. Fidler added that smoking rates seem to be dropping in 14- to 15-year-old boys, but rising in girls of the same age. However, the difference in the strength of the dating/smoking link may be due to girls using a stricter definition of dating.
Possible explanations for the link include the use of smoking to maintain a popular image, and the association both behaviors have with aspirations toward maturity. The researchers suggest that as they grow up, popular children may be more likely to see themselves as the sort of person who might smoke, and also to smoke in an attempt to maintain their status. Dating could also put them in contact with older children who may be smokers.
Dating may occur before smoking simply because the opportunity is available sooner. If this is the case then dating is linked to, but does not lead to, later smoking.
Most long-term smokers take up the habit during adolescence, and the damage to their health begins early. Adolescents who smoke take more days off sick from school and have more respiratory problems than nonsmokers of the same age. But attempts to prevent smoking or promote quitting in adolescents have had limited success.
Previous studies also have found a link between smoking and dating and note the significance of status and popularity in taking up smoking and having romantic relationships.
Fidler, J. et al. Early dating predicts smoking during adolescence: a prospective study. Addiction, Vol. 101, 1 December 2006, pp. 1805-13.