UW News

August 30, 2000

Children growing up in families with physical or verbal abuse more likely to smoke

The family environment that children grow up in can have long-lasting effects on whether they smoke, according to a new study by University of Washington researchers who used data collected over a 35-year time span.

Although growing up in poverty or a broken family had no effect on smoking, a finding that surprised researchers Daphne Kuo and Jonathan Mayer, children who were raised in families where there was physical or verbal abuse were more likely to smoke. However, the effects varied by gender. Women were 24 percent more likely to smoke if they grew up in a home where there was verbal abuse. Men raised in homes where there was physical abuse were 28 percent more likely to smoke.

Kuo, an assistant professor of sociology, and Mayer, a professor of geography, medicine and public health, used data collected in the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which surveyed a representative sample of students graduating from high school in that state in 1957. Follow-up surveys were conducted in 1975 and again in 1992 when the subjects were 51 or 52 years old. The smoking study included data from more than 3,200 people – 1,700-plus women and 1,500-plus men.

“There are any number of books and studies on the consequences of growing up poor,” said Kuo. “What surprised us was the data showing that poverty and a broken family in childhood does not make people more likely to smoke.”

The study also showed that:

  • One-third of the women who ever smoked were still smoking at age 51-52. Two-thirds had quit.
  • One-quarter of the men who ever smoked were still smoking at age 51-52. Three-quarters had stopped.
  • Urban residents were 41 percent more likely to smoke than were people from rural areas.
  • The more religious people were, the less likely they were to smoke, although Catholics and members of Eastern Orthodox churches were more likely to smoke than members of other religious groups.
  • The more smokers in the childhood home the more likely a person was to smoke.
  • Military service increases men’s likelihood of smoking.
  • High IQ and parental encouragement to attend college increased women’s chances of smoking, although the habit didn’t necessarily persist.
  • Later socioeconomic achievements and life events do not moderate the effects of early life events on smoking.

Kuo said it is important to note that the data in the study were from a group of people who were raised when it wasn’t considered “wrong” or not healthy to smoke. No data were collected on why people stopped smoking because the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study was not designed to probe for reasons behind smoking behaviors.

She said a disadvantage of the study was that the data only included high school seniors, 99 percent of whom were white. A more complete picture of societal smoking behavior could have been obtained, she said, if the survey had begun by collecting information about health behaviors from all students entering high school rather than those graduating from high school.

Even so, the study has significant public health implications, according to Mayer. “This is the first longitudinal study to show that the family environment is important and has lasting effects. What happens early in life predisposes people to smoking, particularly growing up in a turbulent family environment. If we can prevent smoking early on, we may be able to have a tremendous effect.”

The UW researchers presented their findings at the annual meeting of the Population Association of America.


For more information, contact Kuo at (206) 543-4572 or dkuo@u.washington.edu or Mayer at (206) 543-7110 or jmayer@u.washington.edu