Smoking is powerful enough to affect almost every part of the body. Yet surveys in the past has revealed that most smokers try to quit but fail, despite knowing ill effects. Now, new research has found that having peers who smoke doubles the risk that non-smoking teenagers will also pick up the habit. Led by Jiaying Liu, PhD, a recent graduate from the University of Pennsylvania, the meta-analysis included 75 smoking studies covering data from 16 different countries. The study included data from both collectivistic cultures like China, South Korea, Jordan and Portugal, and individualistic cultures like the United States, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.
Although previous research has looked at the influence of peers on teenage smoking habits, results have varied regarding how peer influence works and how big a risk it is. “Meta-analysis is a summary of all we know,” explained the study’s senior author, Dolores Albarracín, “giving us a more reliable, robust number that is better supported by the facts.” The team found that having friends who smoke doubles the risk that children aged 10 to 19 will start to smoke, and continue smoking.
The results showed that peer influence is more powerful in collectivist cultures than individualist, with teens in collectivist cultures 4.3 times more likely to start smoking if they have smoker peers, in contrast to teens in individualistic countries who are 1.89 times more likely to take up the habit if their peers smoke. The findings suggested that the ethnic origins of the teenagers also played a role, regardless of their nationality. Liu commented, “We found that peer influence was much weaker in samples with higher proportions of adolescents with a European background, but much stronger in samples with higher proportions of adolescents with an Asian background.”
Closer friends had a bigger impact on whether teens started smoking than more distant friends. However, this didn’t affect whether adolescents continued to smoke, suggesting that the addictive qualities of tobacco are a bigger factor than peer influence. By including only longitudinal studies the team was able to determine that it is peer influence that leads to an increased chance of teens smoking, rather teens who smoke being more likely to become friends. The team now hope that their findings will provide better insight into the risk factors behind teenage smoking and how the habit can be prevented in this age group.
“It’s not enough just to say, ‘Don’t smoke it’s bad for you,’” said Albarracín. “How are teenagers going to deal with temptation on a daily basis? We need much more specific campaigns dealing with normative influence-for example, pointing out how many adolescents don’t smoke. There can be more messaging in schools and training for parents on how to build refusal skills in their children.” The findings were published in Psychological Bulletin.