Teen smokers are better at getting friends to start than nonsmokers are at getting friends to quit.
“What we found is that social influence matters, it leads nonsmoking friends into smoking and nonsmoking friends can turn smoking friends into nonsmokers,” says Steven Haas, associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State. “However, the impact is asymmetrical: the tendency for adolescents to follow their friends into smoking is stronger.”
The addictive effect of nicotine may be the strongest influence on an adolescent’s inability to help their friends quit smoking. However, there are other reasons why peer influence to start smoking is stronger, Haas says.
“In order to become a smoker, kids need to know how to smoke, they need to know where to buy cigarettes and how to smoke without being caught, which are all things they can learn from their friends who smoke. But, friends are unlikely to be able to provide the type of resources needed to help them quit smoking.”
Nonsmoking friends would not have access to nicotine replacement products or organized cessation programs to help their friends quit, according to the researchers, who report their findings in the current issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.
Quitting Cold Turkey
“Most often, adolescents will try to either quit cold turkey, or by gradually reducing their smoking, and these are the least successful ways to quit,” Haas says.
While most current adolescent smoking prevention programs are aimed at building resistance to peer pressure, school nurses and health professionals may be able to design programs that use peer pressure to positively influence behavior, Haas says. For example, they could design programs to help nonsmoking adolescents help their smoking friends.
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“We have to have a more nuanced view of influence. In reality, kids aren’t all bad or all good, and some friends who may not be a good influence in one area may actually be a positive influence in other areas.”
The research may also apply to other areas of adolescent behavior. “This may apply well beyond smoking,” Haas says. “There may be similar patterns in adolescent drinking, drug use, sex, and delinquency.”
The researchers used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Their sample data set included two high schools, one with 757 students and the other with 1,673 students. The data was collected at several times throughout the school year, allowing researchers a chance to see how not just behaviors change, but also how networks of friendships evolve over time.
About the Authors
Matthew Swayne is a Research and Technology Information Officer at Penn State. He also is a Public Relations Manager and Adjunct Journalism Instructor at the university.
David Schaefer, associate professor of human evolution and social change at Arizona State University, is a coauthor of the study. The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development supported this work.
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