How Normal Is Smoking? Teens Don’t Know, Pitt Study Reports

Issue Date: 
May 29, 2007

The more a high school student overestimates the percentage of people in the general population who smoke cigarettes, the more likely he or she will be to smoke, reports a Pitt School of Medicine study.

The study sheds new light on this and other identifiable risk factors that may make teenagers susceptible to smoking and offers findings that may be particularly valuable for smoking intervention programs.

The study identifies three distinct ways to measure “normative beliefs” involving smoking, each of which it found to be significantly related to adolescents’ likelihood of smoking. According to the study:

• The more an adolescent perceived that successful and elite people smoked cigarettes, the more likely that adolescent was to smoke;

• The more strongly an adolescent perceived that his or her parents or peers disapproved of smoking, the less likely that adolescent was to smoke; and

• The more an adolescent overestimated the percentage of smokers in the general population, the more likely that adolescent was to smoke.

According to the study, 93 percent of high school students overestimate the percentage of people who smoke in the United States. On average, they believe more than half of Americans are smokers, while the actual figure is less than half that.

“These findings are of value to those who devote themselves to smoking intervention programs geared to teenage audiences,” said lead author Brian Primack, an assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics in Pitt’s medical school. “Smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, so any new information is welcome. Adolescents have important misconceptions about cigarette smoking that can place them at increased risk for smoking.”

More than 1,200 high school students who participated in the study were assigned normative belief scores based on their responses to survey items. Students responded as to whether they agreed or disagreed with statements like, “Most successful business people smoke cigarettes at least once a month” and “My favorite celebrities probably smoke cigarettes at least once a month.”

The students also responded to “perceived disapproval” statements such as, “According to most people my age, it is very important for me not to smoke cigarettes.”

Finally, students were asked what percentage of U.S. high school students and adults they thought smoked at least once each month.

The study was funded by the Maurice Falk Foundation and Tobacco-Free Allegheny. Primack’s research currently is supported by the National Cancer Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Study results were published in the May issue of the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.