Girls twice as likely to smoke as boys

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The number of teenagers smoking remains worryingly high, with girls twice as likely as boys to take it up, according to ESRC-sponsored research tracking the habits of a large group of youngsters over the past six years.

Research led by Dr Mark Conner, of the School of Psychology, University of Leeds, involved questionnaires for all the group and breath or saliva tests for some. The researchers' report shows that targeting young people at age 11-14 is not enough to deter them from taking up smoking a couple of years later.

The new work built on a study begun in 1998, which involved seven visits to more than 1,500 children from the age of 11-12 until 13-14 at schools in the Leeds area.

Material pointing out the dangers of smoking and encouraging children’s belief in their own ability to say ‘no’ was included at each of the earlier visits. According to the report, this appeared to reduce the level of smoking, in particular for those who attended each session and completed various tasks set by the research team.

However, having returned more than two years on, researchers argue that efforts such as this need to be repeated at more regular intervals if they are to have any long-term effect.

For the latest study, 1134 young people aged 15-16 took part, of whom 809 were in the previous group.

More than half of the 15-16-year-olds questioned (56 per cent) said they had not had a puff of a cigarette in the past three months. But this compared with 75 per cent at age 13-14 who had not smoked during the previous term, and as many as 83 per cent in earlier sessions.

Researchers also found that pupils who knew they were having a breath or saliva test as well as answering questions were significantly more likely to admit to being a smoker (69 per cent compared with 61 per cent).

The previous study also found that whilst the figures for regular smoking were very similar for boys and girls at age 11-12, by the time they were 13 or 14, girls were twice as likely to be smokers (16 per cent compared with eight per cent).

In the latest work, this pattern was found to be continuing among the 15-16 age group, with 31 per cent of girls and 16 per cent of boys at that age now regularly indulging.

Dr Conner said: “From the results of our study, the pointers to someone in the first year of secondary school taking up smoking by the age of 15-16 are being a girl and having smoked when they were younger.

“For those who were non-smokers at age 13-14, pupils most likely to take up the habit by age 15-16 were those with a more positive attitude towards smoking, who lived with smokers, and had more friends who smoked than didn’t. And, again, being a girl.”

He added: “It is not clear from our results why girls are more likely to smoke. This is an area we’d like to devote more attention to in the future.”

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