When it Comes to Tobacco,Teens Do Weigh Pros and Cons

UC Merced Psychologist Finds Teen Smokers View Smoking as Less Dangerous and More Beneficial than Non-Smokers

MERCED, CA— Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable deaths in the U.S., causing close to a half-million deaths every year. It's common knowledge that the best way to stop smoking is to never start, yet 1 million people pick up the habit each year - and many of them are under 18.

Given the facts, preventing tobacco use among adolescents is a major focus in our country, but the statistics regarding teen smoking remain staggering.

UC Merced psychologist Anna V. Songspends her days figuring out why, if teens know smoking is unhealthy, they do it anyway.

Song found that when it comes to deciding whether to smoke that first cigarette, teens actually do weigh the pros and cons. Teens who believe smoking is very risky and holds little value are less likely to smoke, compared to teens who believe smoking is safer and socially valuable.

Song and her collaborator, Dr. Bonnie Halpern-Felsher at UC San Francisco, presented their findings in the March 2009 edition of the American Journal of Public Health,published today, Feb. 10.

"Contrary to the stereotype of the brash, non-thinking teen, young people do care about the risks and benefits associated to smoking," Song said. "The difference between those who light up and those who don't is how they weigh the risks versus benefits."

Though public health officials accept that perception is reality for teens, Song's study was the first of its kind. Using longitudinal data collected over two years, the study compared how adolescents view the short-term and long-term risks of smoking, along with perceived benefits.

Song believes that her findings can help improve the effectiveness of anti-smoking campaigns by focusing on both perceived risks and benefits that resonate most deeply with teens.

"In our study, no one really believed they were immune to the long-term risks of smoking," Song said. "But our findings do demonstrate that interventions focused only on long-term dangers such as cancer and heart disease are not addressing the whole picture. To be effective, they must also address other issues that are important to teens like feeling grown-up, smelling like an ashtray, or getting into trouble."

Song, who conducted this research project while at the Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education at UC San Francisco, joined the Psychological Sciencesfaculty at UC Merced in Fall 2008. She is one of many human health experts at UC Merced. Her area of expertise is risk behaviors in adolescents, which include sexual activity, and the use of tobacco, drugs and alcohol. To view other faculty experts, visit facultyexperts.ucmerced.edu.

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