MASCOT Members Urge Teen Tobacco Possession Law

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Center for the Advancement of Health
Contact: Ira R. Allen
Director of Public Affairs

Teenagers with aggressive tendencies and who suffer from even low levels of depression may be more likely to start smoking, according to the results of the first study to collect information from teens in real-time, using electronic diaries.

"Our findings suggest the merit of targeting adolescents with depressive and aggressive dispositions," said lead author Carol K. Whalen, PhD, who conducted the study with Larry D. Jamner, PhD, and colleagues at the University of California at Irvine.


Efforts to prevent teens from smoking have been relatively unsuccessful thus far according to the researchers. Up to one million teens begin smoking every year, and teen smoking rates continue to increase while adult rates decline.

Approximately 150 ninth-grade students, both smokers and non-smokers participated in the study. In addition to completing psychosocial questionnaires, the students were taught to use handheld computers to make 30 brief diary entries daily to record their moods, behaviors and contexts.

Students who were identified by the questionnaires as having aggressive and depressive dispositions were more likely to smoke, Whalen and colleagues found. These teens were also more likely to report feeling angry, hassled and sad in their diaries. The researchers report their findings in the March 2001 issue of Health Psychology.

The researchers were struck by the generally high rates of negative feelings reported by the study participants. While those with aggressive and depressive dispositions reported feeling some level of anxiety 45 to 60 percent of the time, even those with low levels of aggression and depression reported such feelings over a third of the time. "Our findings support the view that adolescents do indeed live in emotionally turbulent worlds, experiencing wide mood fluctuations and frequent negative emotions," said Whalen.

The researchers also found an intriguing gender difference when they examined the teenagers' responses to a smoking survey: the girls who were most likely to say they smoked were those with both aggressive and depressive dispositions. Among boys, smoking was reported most by those who were aggressive but not depressed. "Several positive attributes have been ascribed to smokers including being cool, socially precocious, and for girls, more desirable as friends," said Whalen. Depressed girls may be particularly vulnerable to behaving in ways they hope will improve their social image. "The male smoker image may be based more on risk, rule breaking and rebellion than on social affiliation, and depression may blunt the appeal of the smoking image," said Whalen.

The researchers suggest that one way to prevent teen smoking may be to focus efforts on those most vulnerable to smoking's allure. "Treating emotional and behavioral problems may not only improve psychological adjustment but also promote health by preventing smoking initiation, delaying transition from experimental to regular tobacco use or enhancing efforts to quit," said Whalen. "Vulnerability does not have to be destiny," the author concluded.

The study was supported by grants from the California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program, the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Health Psychology is the official, peer-reviewed research journal of the Division of Health Psychology (Division 38), American Psychological Association. For information about the journal, contact Arthur Stone, PhD, at 631.632.8833.