The illusion of smoking can be just as deadly as the real thing for minority inner-city girls who believe their mothers have the habit, a new University of Florida
Black and Hispanic inner-city girls who think their mothers smoke -- even if that is not the case -- were three times more likely to have tried cigarettes than girls who know their mothers are nonsmokers, said Julia Graber, a UF psychology professor who did the research with seventh-grade girls. The study appears in the current issue of the Journal of Research on Adolescence.
“What really matters is what daughters think is happening, not so much what mothers actually do,” Graber said. “That makes it very important for mothers who aren’t smokers, but whose daughters think they are for some reason, to give clear messages they don’t smoke and don’t consider it to be appropriate behavior. Adolescence is a critical time for learning about addiction, because smokers are more likely to start then than at any other stage in their lives.”
Worse, girls who had never tried cigarettes yet mistakenly believed their mothers smoked were twice as likely to try cigarettes than girls who knew their moms were nonsmokers, she said.
Why girls would think their mothers smoked when they said they didn’t is unclear, Graber said.
“It may be that smoking in minority households occurs less frequently and more sporadically, thereby causing greater confusion among adolescent girls about their mothers’ smoking status,” she said. Also, other adults in the household may smoke and the girls may mistakenly believe that this is common adult behavior, Graber said. Or perhaps their mothers actually do smoke even though they said they don’t and their daughters have seen them, she said.
Although smoking rates among teens and adults have remained fairly stable, smoking is no longer more prevalent among men and boys, Graber said.
Concerns about the health effects of smoking in women have increased. As reported in the paper, lung cancer has surpassed breast cancer as the leading cause of cancer death in women, and studies have found smoking to be a factor in cervical cancer and pre-term births.
Minority women may face even greater risks of developing smoking-related disease, Graber said, noting that blacks have higher rates of high blood pressure, diabetes and delivery of low birth-weight babies, conditions all made worse by smoking.
Although studies have been done among white suburban youth on the social factors influencing adolescents to smoke, little research has been done on minorities, Graber said. Her research focused on 293 black and 96 Hispanic girls between 11 and 15 who attended school in New York City, and their mothers. The 23 public and seven parochial schools represented in the study were selected from districts with low socioeconomic status based on the New York City Board of Education’s poverty index and which had at least 80 percent minority student enrollment. The girls and their mothers reported their race and ethnicity based on a list and had to select one option.
Seventh grade blacks and Hispanic girls in English-speaking, mainstream classes were recruited for the study, and those who returned parental consent forms participated. The study consisted of a written survey for students and a 15-minute telephone interview with their mothers asking whether or not they smoked, how prevalent they believed smoking was among adults and their attitudes about children smoking. The daughters were asked if their mothers smoked, if they themselves intended to smoke within the next year and how often they smoked cigarettes, with response categories ranging from “never tried it” to “more than once a day.”
The study found that black girls were less likely to have tried cigarettes than their Hispanic peers. But maternal influences were more important for blacks, with those who perceived their mothers to be smokers indicating a nearly twice as likely intent to start smoking as Hispanics.
The results are contrary to previous studies suggesting black adolescents are less influenced by adult role modeling than white adolescents, but the majority of those studies have not examined gender differences or made comparisons across minority groups, the authors report in the paper.
If their mothers believed that smoking was a common practice among adults, black girls in the UF study were more likely to start smoking than Hispanics, Graber said. Among the black mothers, 55 percent believed that “all” or “almost all” adults smoke, compared with 35 percent of the Hispanic women, she said. Less than 23 percent of people 18 years of age and older smoked in 2001, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“That so many women thought smoking was prevalent was a little surprising because of the vast amount of public health information out there on the subject,” she said. “I think we expect misperceptions from adolescents and children, but are caught a little off guard when we see them in adults.”
More than one quarter of the girls - 26 percent - gave a different answer than their mothers when asked if their mothers smoked.
Unlike the girls’ perceptions about their mothers smoking, the study found that mothers’ attitudes towards their children’s use of cigarettes had no effect on whether their daughters took up the habit. This is likely mainly because most mothers do not approve of children smoking, she said.
The study has important gender implications, said Judy Andrews, a research scientist in developmental psychology at the Oregon Research Institute in Eugene, Ore., who has done studies on substance abuse among young people. “A focus on girls is essential at this time when the prevalence of smoking among young girls is exceeding that of boys,” she said. “The identification of risk factors that vary by race and ethnicity will help to guide prevention efforts among these minority girls.