Everyone knows it’s bad to smoke around your kids. What’s less clear is exactly which factors contribute to the transmission of smoking habits from generation to generation. That’s what researchers hoped to shed some new light on in a new study in the American Journal of Public Health.
The team, led by Dr. Denise B. Kandel of the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, looked at data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2004 to 2012, specifically 35,000 pairs of parents and adolescents living in the same household. The idea was to figure out which sort of parental characteristics predicted that a kid would smoke and/or become dependent on nicotine.
Overall, there was a clear link. In terms of raw numbers, “Thirteen percent of adolescents ever smoked if their parent never smoked, 19.3% if their parent formerly smoked, 27.8% if their parent smoked in the past year but was not dependent, and 38.2% if their parent was currently dependent. Among adolescents who were lifetime smokers, 4.6% were dependent if their parent never smoked, 5.6% if their parent formerly smoked, 7.8% if their parent smoked in the past year but was not dependent, 15.1% if their parent was dependent.” The relationship between parental and adolescent smoking held even after a bunch of other factors that might influence whether a kid smokes were taken into account (such as kids’ perception that a lot of their friends are smoking).
But there were important gender differences at work here: Daughters were almost four times likelier to be nicotine-dependent when their mom was, and more than twice as likely if their mom was a former smoker, but they were unaffected by their dad’s smoking habits. “Sons’ [nicotine] dependence,” on the other hand, “was not affected by parental dependence and smoking patterns.” The researchers think that the male/female gap “may be attributable to gender differences in the consequences of exposure to maternal prenatal smoking, socialization, and vulnerability to [nicotine dependence],” which is a somewhat fancy way of saying they’re not sure exactly what’s going on here. They also highlighted the role of genetics, though they think it’s a more important factor in terms of transmitting heavy smoking habits than in determining whether an adolescent smokes at all.
As with any big correlational study, this one both provides a lot of information and raises further questions. But nothing in here suggests that the commonsense logic — don’t smoke around your kids — is flawed. In fact, one of the researchers’ conclusions is very simple: “Reducing parental smoking would reduce adolescent smoking.”