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Another Factor for Smoking

Early Abuse

Story by
Nancy Joseph

The family environment that children grow up in can have long-lasting effects on whether they smoke, according to UW researchers Daphne Kuo and Jonathan Mayer. Their findings are based on data collected over a 35-year time span. 

The researchers found that growing up in poverty or a broken family had no effect on smoking—a finding that surprised them—but discovered that children raised in families where there was physical or verbal abuse were more likely to smoke. 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, assistant professor of sociology, and Mayer, 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. 

“There are any number of books and studies on the consequences of growing up poor,” says 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 found that later socioeconomic achievements and life events do not moderate the effects of early life events on smoking. 

Kuo says it is important to note that the data in the study were from a group of people who were raised when it was not considered “wrong” or unhealthy 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. 

A disadvantage of the study, says Kuo, is that the data only included high school seniors, 99 percent of whom were white. Even so, the researchers believe the study has significant public health implications. “This is the first longitudinal study to show that the family environment is important and has lasting effects,” says Mayer. “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.”