Parents’ income, education, race, religion affect whether a teen lights up

Whether your child becomes a smoker may be determined in part by the neighbourhood he or she grows up in, according to a new report by a Montreal-based research centre.

“We wanted to develop a better understanding of how neighbourhoods affect health,” said Christiane Montpetit, who wrote the report for the Centre Léa-Roback, a research institute that focuses on the impact of social inequality on health.

Researchers at the centre analyzed about 20 different smoking related studies produced over the last decade and tried to draw conclusions about environmental factors that encourage or discourage tobacco use among youth.

Overall, adult Quebecers are smoking less, partly because of smoking bans in restaurants, bars and other public places. But 31 per cent of young people (age 20 to 24) in Quebec still smoke, and most start in their teens.

As with adult smoking, socio-economic status plays a role, in that a greater percentage of poor kids smoke. But an even stronger link seems to be the level of education of parents, the report notes. The more educated the parents, the less likely the kids smoke. Attitudes toward school (whether a young person values academic performance, feels a sense of belonging to their school, etc.) have an impact on smoking, and those attitudes are often influenced heavily by parents.

Peer group pressure is also a major factor in whether a teenager will choose to smoke. The weight of this influence varies according to gender (girls are more easily influenced), ethnic group, and intensity of parental guidance.

Several U.S. studies show that smoking rates are higher among white teenagers than African-American teens, or those of South American or Asian origin. While it is difficult to isolate ethnicity from other factors, some studies have shown that parents in certain ethnic groups send more vigorous anti-smoking messages than others.

Ethnic concentration in a neighbourhood can have a positive effect on youth smoking rates, the report says. “Adolescents who reside in a neighbourhood where a strong proportion of residents are African-American are less at risk to start smoking than those who live in neighbourhoods where there are few black people,” the report says.

Montpetit said these findings related to ethnicity don’t necessarily apply in Montreal, but studies here have shown smoking rates are higher among francophones than anglophones or allophones.

The researchers also found that in neighbourhoods where violence is common and a feeling of insecurity dominates, the likelihood that kids will start smoking at a very young age is high.

Neighbourhoods where young people have opportunities to get involved in community events tend to have lower youth smoking rates.

And young people who regularly attend religious services are far less likely to smoke than their peers who do not, the report says.

Montpetit acknowledged the report raises more questions than it answers, but it shows that strategies that target only the individual might not be an effective way to reduce smoking among teens.

“We all know that in certain neighbourhoods, often wealthier ones, it is considered shameful to be seen smoking. People actually hide when they smoke. …Whereas if you live in a place where everyone smokes, it becomes a social activity,” she said.

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