Adolescent Status Predictive of Later Smoking

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A press release from the Addiction Journal describes a study out of Sweden examining the relationship between peer status in young people and the likelihood they will take up smoking as adults.

The study used data from more than 2,000 Swedes who had been ranked for peer status at 13 years old, and then counted how many reported being smokers at age 32. This was compared to the background rate of smoking for the general population. Smokers were also ranked as “regular” (less than a pack – 20 cigarettes – a day) and “heavy” (more than a pack a day).

Researchers found that lower status correlated with higher smoking rates. They also mentioned that popularity as originally measured was based on a voting mechanism – instead of self-rating status (a common procedure), students were ranked by their fellow students. Those with the most votes were deemed the most popular and having the highest status.

The import of the study is that anti-smoking campaigns can now focus their efforts on students who are either less popular or even marginalized – perhaps to good effect. What isn’t known is whether there is a hidden variable. It could be that the same traits that lead to a lower status, such as lack of confidence, awkwardness or poor social skills, drive both smoking and reduced rank among peers.

Are marginalized students driven to find rewards elsewhere? Does a socially acceptable addiction like smoking offer benefits to those who are not well liked or appreciated?

There is one obvious result of being a smoker in a culture where smoking is frowned upon. We spot the “smoking clique” hanging around outside of office buildings, and they do seem to be accessing a kind of mutual support. Perhaps the subculture of smokers is a later mirroring of the same subculture of the unpopular found in many school settings. It would make an interesting follow-up study.

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