Nearly all smokers started when they were young, and evidence shows that peer influence plays a significant role in determining who smokes and who doesn't. In 2012, the surgeon general of the U.S. Public Health Service reported that 99 percent of people who smoke start before age 26, and 88 percent of smokers begin by age 18. Adolescents and young adults are particularly vulnerable to smoking's addictive lure. According to the surgeon general, 1 in 4 high school seniors is already a regular smoker. Each day in the United States, 3,800 children under 18 smoke their first cigarette, and 1,000 others become daily smokers.
Peer Influence Starts Early
The National Institutes of Health reported in June 2012 that the most common time frame for initial experimentation with smoking is during the 6th through 9th grade, although 6 percent of 8th-graders reported having their first cigarette prior to the 6th grade. A July 2013 study in the "Journal of Adolescent Health" found that the influence of peers on cigarette smoking was greatest during the middle school years. Peer influence was found to weaken during the transition from junior high to high school, offering a window of opportunity for interventions aimed at counteracting peer influence.
Smokers Stick Together
Adolescents who smoke most likely have friends who smoke. According to the surgeon general, this is the result of both socialization and friend selection. Adolescents learn about smoking by hanging around others who smoke. The decision to light up is reinforced by a desire to be accepted by their peer group, to fit in and establish a social identity. Likewise, teens who perceive that their friends disapprove of smoking are less likely to smoke. Teens who smoke also tend to make friends with other smokers, reinforcing their decision to smoke.
Other Factors Contribute to Peer Pressure
The surgeon general has identified a number of factors that can increase the effects of peer pressure. Children and teens whose parents have less education or income, or who believe smoking is expected or normal, are more likely to smoke. Those who are not doing well academically or not involved in extracurricular activities appear to be at greater risk for taking up smoking. Those who feel bad about themselves or lack self-confidence might also be more prone to smoke, either on their own or in response to peer pressure.
Parents Can Make a Difference
In spite of peer pressure, parents play a powerful role. A June 2013 report in the "Journal of Applied Psychology" underscored the link between parental views on tobacco use and smoking in adolescence. The 1994 and 2012 reports of the surgeon general cited lack of parental involvement as a significant risk factor. Multiple studies have concluded that higher-quality parent-child relationships -- defined by factors such as closeness, supportiveness and involvement -- reduce the chances of smoking. Furthermore, parents who smoke are more likely to have children who smoke.
Is This an Emergency?
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: The Health Consequences of Smoking -- 50 Years of Progress -- A Report of the Surgeon General, 2014
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults -- A Report of the Surgeon General, 2012
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Preventing Tobacco Use Among Young People -- A Report of the Surgeon General, 1994
- Journal of Applied Psychology: Using Peer Injunctive Norms to Predict Early Adolescent Cigarette Smoking Intentions
- Journal of Adolescent Health: Changes in Friends’ and Parental Influences on Cigarette Smoking From Early Through Late Adolescence
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Monitoring the Future -- National Survey on Drug Use, 1975-2011
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: What You Need to Know About Tobacco to Talk to Your Teens
- American Lung Association: Why Kids Start