Q: [Adolescent] Is teen smoking still a big problem and how might it impact a teen’s future family? How can I talk to my teen about the dangers of smoking?
A: Smoking is generally understood to be an unhealthy behavior with serious consequences. Tobacco use during pregnancy poses considerable risk to both the mother and fetus: prenatal smoking is the leading, known preventable cause of perinatal morbidity and mortality in the U.S. and is associated with low birth weight. Preterm or low birth weight babies (weighing less than five pounds, eight ounces) are more susceptible to physical and cognitive difficulties later in life.
What is less well recognized is that most adult smokers who began using tobacco as a teenager display higher levels of addiction than adults who initiated tobacco use later on. Thus, prevention programs targeted at reducing teenage tobacco initiation can have payoffs for years to come.
Our team set out to identify new ways of preventing prenatal smoking. Historically, the literature in this area has focused on identifying risk factors of prenatal smoking within the prenatal period, or immediate preconception period (the 12 months leading up to pregnancy). A key contribution of our study is that we look further back in time—before women even become pregnant—and identify earlier events and risk factors that ultimately lead to poor children’s health at birth.
We analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, a school-based, nationally represented sample of 20,745 students in grades 7-12 in 1994-1995. We discovered that the risk of prenatal smoking can be traced back to the mother’s family-of-origin socioeconomic status—meaning individuals growing up in families with fewer economic resources are at a higher risk of prenatal smoking. Perhaps even more interesting—we discovered a chain of risks linking the two.
Those who smoked prior to pregnancy were eight times more likely to smoke while pregnant.
Therefore, we conclude that programs to prevent adolescent uptake of smoking should be redoubled.
Jennifer Kane, an assistant sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine, is a National Academy of Sciences Kavli Fellow. She received her sociology and demography Ph.D. from The Pennsylvania State University, and has social work and public health experience.