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Childhood Physical Abuse May Lead to Heavy Smoking in Teen Years

Children who are physically abused, especially as toddlers or teens, face significantly greater odds that their adolescent experimentation with cigarettes will lead to a heavy smoking habit, according to a new study at Ohio State University.

The findings also show that neglect of very young children in the same high-risk population was linked to a gradual increase in cigarette use among teens who smoked.

“I wanted to look at different types of maltreatment and whether they have an impact on cigarette smoking,” said lead author Dr. Susan Yoon, assistant professor of social work at The Ohio State University. “There’s also the impact of timing — it’s not just maltreatment, yes or no. When did it happen, and does that matter with regard to outcomes?”

The research is published online in the journal Substance Use and Misuse.

It is well-established that kids who are at high risk of being mistreated at home — who live in poverty or have parents who use drugs or have mental health problems — are more likely to begin smoking.

Since abused and neglected children are often unsupervised, these teens have easy access to cigarettes and other substances that they use to deal with anxiety and other trauma-related symptoms.

In the new study, Yoon and her team examined data on children who were at high risk for abuse and neglect, either because they had been referred to a child protective service or lived in conditions associated with the likelihood of maltreatment, or both.

Yoon noted that substance abuse research doesn’t often take cigarette smoking into account despite its significant damaging effects on health.

“Adolescent cigarette smoking is a really serious social problem and public health concern. Brain development is not complete until late adolescence or during young adulthood, and cigarette smoking is associated with damage in brain development,” Yoon said.

“We also know that those who start smoking cigarettes during adolescence are more likely to continue smoking into adulthood.”

The researchers pulled data from the Longitudinal Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect, a group of studies across different regions of the United States targeting children who were identified as maltreated or at risk for maltreatment. This study used data on 903 adolescents who were evaluated at ages 12, 16 and 18.

An analysis of different types of abuse and neglect experienced by the kids in the study during three different time periods (early childhood, school age and adolescence) confirmed how vulnerable these children were. Almost a quarter had been neglected during early childhood and their school-age years, and 19 percent reported school-age physical abuse.

Almost half lived in poverty and 58 percent lived in households in which family members smoked cigarettes.

Yoon used their responses about smoking between the ages of 12 and 18 to identify three patterns of cigarette use: stable low/no use (61 percent of respondents), gradually increasing use (30 percent) and sharply increasing cigarette use (9 percent).

“It was almost shocking how the pattern of cigarette use over time went up so drastically in the sharply increasing use class,” Yoon said. “They were pretty similar to the others at age 12 — almost 80 percent didn’t smoke. At age 16, we saw that almost 60 percent had used cigarettes more than 20 days in the past year and by 18, every single kid in this group reported heavy use of cigarettes.”

Further analysis revealed that adolescents who experienced early childhood physical abuse were 2.3 times more likely to be in the sharply increasing cigarette use group compared with the stable no/low group.

Physical abuse during adolescence had an even greater effect; this type of mistreatment at that point in life was linked to 3.7 times higher odds for sharply increased cigarette use.

Those who had experienced neglect during early childhood were 1.89 times more likely to be in the gradually increasing cigarette use group than in the stable no/low use group. Neglect can include a lack of appropriate supervision and failure to meet kids’ needs, ranging from food and clothing to medical needs and education.

About 40 percent of these smokers had reported using cigarettes at age 16, and by age 18, more than 80 percent were smokers, and about 40 percent had smoked on more than 20 days in the previous year.

The researchers also measured the potential effects of sexual abuse and emotional abuse on cigarette use, but neither was a predictor of an increase in smoking.

“The different types of maltreatment predicted different patterns of cigarette use, but the timing mattered as well. It was early childhood and adolescence that appear to be really sensitive periods in which maltreatment influences these outcomes,” Yoon said.

The findings suggest efforts to prevent smoking by teens at risk of maltreatment, especially children experiencing physical abuse and neglect, should start before age 12, she said.

Source: Ohio State University

Childhood Physical Abuse May Lead to Heavy Smoking in Teen Years

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Childhood Physical Abuse May Lead to Heavy Smoking in Teen Years. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 25 Feb 2020 (Originally: 25 Feb 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 25 Feb 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.