The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Smoking Singles

Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King

Public officials frequently boast that they have made it hard for tobacco companies to peddle their wares among this generation of young adults. However, a study recently completed at Emory University makes it quite obvious that to the degree that these officials have helped foster the national retreat from marriage and marital child-bearing, they have actually made the tobacco-mongers’ job much easier.

To identify the personal characteristics and social contexts associated with smoking during young adulthood, the Emory scholars pore over data collected for 1,205 young people initially surveyed while enrolled in 10th and 11th grades in three suburban high schools in Western New York and then tracked for eight years.

Of course, young adults are more likely to smoke if they were already tobacco users as adolescents. The researchers indeed acknowledge “the continuity pattern of smoking from adolescence to young adulthood.”  Interestingly, however, in the simple bivariate model, the researchers found that among young people who smoked as adolescents, marital status was a significant predictor of continued smoking in young adulthood, with those who remained unmarried significantly more likely to continue smoking as young adults (p = 0.04). To be sure, the linkage between wedlock and smoking cessation drops below the level of statistical significance in the researchers’ multivariable model, taking into account background variables such as years of education, family income, and alcohol use. It could be argued, however, that the benefits of wedlock are so broad that they foster good outcomes in education, family income, and alcohol use at the same time that they suppress smoking.

But the researchers focus particularly on the “subpopulation of adolescents who do not initiate smoking until young adulthood.”  When assessed in the sophisticated multivariate model, the data for this subpopulation reveal that “lower family social support” (p = 0.03) and “being unmarried in adulthood” (p = 0.01) are both significant predictors of smoking in young adulthood for adolescent nonsmokers.

The Emory scholars draw on their multivarate statistical model to identify “not having children” as one of the “predictors of late-onset smoking in young adulthood” (p = 0.13, approaching the threshold defining a statistical trend).

The researchers acknowledge that “higher rates of cigarette smoking among unmarried young adults, relative to married young adults, is supported in the literature” from earlier studies. In fact, they suggest that the inverse relationship between marriage and smoking “might also account for the finding [in this study] regarding parenthood being protective of late-onset smoking.”

Understandably worried about “the continued high smoking prevalence rates” among young Americans, the researchers call for “public-health campaigns and smoking-cessation intervention” targeted for “those at risk for continued smoking or late-onset smoking.”  Given the findings of their study, it would appear that public policies that set the wedding bells ringing and fill the maternity wards may be some of the most effective measures for reducing young-adult smoking.

(Jennifer R. Mendel et al., “Predicting Young Adulthood Smoking among Adolescent Smokers and Nonsmokers,” American Journal of Health Behaviors 36.4 [2012]: 542-54.)