Contrary to popular belief, teenagers do listen to their parents' views on smoking, and believe that they should act to discourage their children from taking up the habit, Swedish research reveals. The findings, published in the journal BMC Public Health, suggest that parents should be encouraged to dissuade their children from smoking as part of wider efforts to prevent smoking in the wider population.
The teenage years represent a key period for a wide range of public health issues, including smoking; studies show that almost all smokers first tried tobacco while still at school. What's more, children can become addicted to smoking extremely quickly, with the most susceptible becoming nicotine dependent within days of their first cigarette.
Tackling this problem requires a good understanding of precisely when youngsters start smoking; how their smoking behaviour changes over time; and who has an influence on the teenagers and so could prevent them from taking up smoking in the first place.
Many parents believe that they have little influence over their teenage children's lifestyle, and that their children do not want their parents to bother them about things like smoking. This study, by scientists at the Epidemiology and Public Health Sciences Department at Umeå University in Sweden, investigated Swedish teenagers' attitudes towards parental action on smoking and looked at how these attitudes have changed over time.
To do this, they analysed data from surveys of Swedish teenagers carried out in 1987, 1994 and 2003. In each survey, 4 500 youngsters aged between 13 and 17 were quizzed about their tobacco use and whether or not their own parents had tried to influence their smoking habits, and asked what they thought parents should do to influence the smoking behaviour of adolescents.
The results revealed that, contrary to expectations, the overwhelming majority of teenagers supported the idea that parents should intervene to prevent their children from smoking, although the idea was more popular among non-smokers than smokers. Furthermore, support for parental intervention has grown over time; in 1987 87% of non-smokers and 67% of smokers supported parental efforts to persuade children not to smoke. By 1994, the figures were 93% and 81% respectively, and by 2003, 95% of non-smokers and 84% of smokers were in favour of parental action on smoking.
According to the teenagers, the best things parents could do to prevent smoking were try and persuade the teenagers not to smoke; not allow them to smoke in the home; and not smoke themselves. Other options, such as forbidding smoking entirely or cutting smokers' pocket money, proved less popular.
Smoking prevalence fell during the years covered by the study, from 8% of those surveyed in 1987 to 4% in 2003. Furthermore, the percentage of children who had never even tried smoking rose to 57% in 2003. The researchers suggest that this decrease in the number of teenage smokers could be due to changes in legislation and a fall in the social acceptability of smoking.
Nevertheless, the study revealed that a small proportion of those surveyed were already smoking at the age of 13. Therefore, the researchers write, efforts to prevent smoking need to start before children enter their teens.
'The fact that adolescents respond positively to parental attitudes to smoking is encouraging,' commented the lead author of the paper, Maria Nilsson. 'Parents should be encouraged to intervene with respect to their children's tobacco use.'