Most students wrong on risks of smoking occasionally

By Andrew Bridges and Janet Raloff

teen smoking

Most students in middle and high school believe smoking now and then won’t cause much harm, a new study finds. Those ‘tweens and teens are wrong. Smoking is bad for you. Period.

DLSimaging /Flickr/ (CC BY 2.0)

Most kids in middle and high school believe that smoking now and then isn’t bad for them, a new study finds. In fact, they’re wrong.

In a national survey, just 1 in 3 students thought that smoking on some days, but not others, can cause a lot of harm. This smoking pattern is common. It also is dangerous. In fact, its health risks are about the same as smoking heavily, report Stephen Amrock and Michael Weitzman. Both work at New York University School of Medicine. Their new study’s findings highlight that most kids do not see risks in smoking the occasional cigarette.

For their study, Amrock and Weitzman analyzed data from the 2012 National Youth Tobacco Survey. It had probed tobacco-related knowledge, attitudes and behaviors in 24,658 students. All were in grades 6 through 12 and lived throughout the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

Most teens knew that heavy smoking can be seriously harmful. About 2 in every 3 students recognized that smoking even just a few cigarettes each day can be hazardous. Only 1 in 3 students, however, recognized that occasional — non-daily — smoking is harmful.

Among teens who smoke this way — intermittently — just 1 out of every 7 understood their habit was dangerous. Details appeared January 12 in the journal Pediatrics.

Occasional smoking is not safe, so “we really need to have a conversation” with whoever thinks otherwise, notes Dave Dobbins. He heads research and public education at Legacy, a group based in Washington, D.C. It encourages teens to reject tobacco. ”Intermittent smoking carries substantial risks,” Dobbins explains. These include the chance that light use will progress to heavier smoking. “We explain to kids that light smoking is smoking,” says Dobbins, who was not connected with the study. And, he adds, his group points out that the “dangers kick in right away.”

Adults who are light or intermittent smokers are those most willing and able to quit, Amrock and Weitzman note. Most smokers start by age 18. That’s why the NYU School of Medicine researchers suggest anti-smoking efforts should target youth who today are only light or occasional smokers.

The good news: Cigarette smoking among American teens has been falling. The bad news: Teen use of other tobacco products is on the rise. That’s the finding of a second new study, due out in the March Pediatrics.

Youn Ok Lee works at RTI International in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Her team also mined data from the 2012 National Youth Tobacco Survey. In 2012, more than 1 in 5 American teens — at least 20 percent — used tobacco products, they found. These expose kids to nicotine. And nicotine is an addictive drug.

But only 4 percent of these kids got their nicotine solely from cigarettes. At least twice as many teen smokers also use some other tobacco product. Among these: cigars, chewing tobacco, snuff, hookahs and electronic cigarettes. This use of two or more tobacco products “should be a concern to the health community,” Lee’s team says. At a minimum, the extra exposure to nicotine increases a teen’s risk of becoming addicted.

One tobacco habit not strongly associated with conventional smoking in teens: vaping. Currently, teen use of electronic cigarettes is just under 1 percent. But an especially troubling fact: That number is double what it was just one year earlier.

Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

adolescence   A transitional stage of physical and psychological development that begins at the onset of puberty, typically between the ages of 11 and 13, and ends with adulthood.

behavior   The way a person or other organism acts towards others, or conducts itself.

data   Facts and statistics collected together for analysis but not necessarily organized in a way that give them meaning. For digital information (the type stored by computers), those data typically are numbers stored in a binary code, portrayed as strings of zeros and ones.

electronic cigarette  (also known as e-cigarette) Battery-powered devices that disperse nicotine and other chemicals as tiny airborne particles that users can inhale. They were originally developed as a safer alternative to cigarettes that users could use as they tried to slowly break their addiction to the nicotine in tobacco products.

hookah  A water pipe used to cool smoke — usually tobacco smoke — that will be inhaled. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “hookah smoking carries many of the same health risks as cigarettes.”

nicotine  A colorless, oily chemical produced in tobacco and certain other plants. It creates the ‘buzz’ effect associated with smoking. It also is highly addictive, making it hard for smokers to give us their use of cigarettes. The chemical is also a poison, sometimes used as a pesticide to kill insects and even some invasive snakes or frogs.

pediatrics  Relating to children and especially child health.

survey  (in statistics)   A questionnaire that samples the opinions, practices (such as dining or sleeping habits), knowledge or skills of a broad range of people. Researchers select the number and types of people questioned in hopes that the answers these individuals give will be representative of others who are their age, belong to the same ethnic group or live in the same region.

vaping  A new slang term for the use e-cigarettes, because these devices emit vapor, not smoke. People who do this are referred to as vapers.

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