Play Ball. PLEASE!

Preventing lung cancer, the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in this country, is a battle being fought on surprising territory—sports playing fields, silver screens, and corner stores.

Focus article photo

The influences on an adolescent's behavior are illustrated with family and friends at the center and cultural forces on the outer edge.

"We have the tools to prevent lung cancers by addressing smoking, which causes the majority of them. We need to keep kids from trying cigarettes.  Parents, caregivers, teachers, coaches, pediatricians, retailers, community members, and older siblings all have a role to play—our research along with many other studies has shown that youth smoking is preventable," said Anna Adachi-Mejia, PhD, Cancer Control Research Program, Norris Cotton Cancer Center.

Preventing teen smoking

To combat the problem, public health researchers must determine the most efficient ways to prevent youth smoking—is it something that families, communities, or individuals should address?

That was the topic tackled recently by Norris Cotton Cancer Center scientists in the paper, "A comparison of individual versus community influence on youth smoking behaviors: a cross-sectional observational study" published in British Medicine Open on September 1, 2012.  The researchers set out to determine the best route to take the biggest bite out of teen smoking rates.

They have a robust history of addressing the question of preventing teen smoking. Dr. James Sargent, who directs the Cancer Control Research Program, has published groundbreaking research that led the recent Surgeon General's report that determined exposure to movie smoking is one cause of youth smoking. Dr. Adachi-Mejia has an interest in how physical activity may modify cancer risk; her studies have shown that team sports participation can help prevent youth smoking. For this study, they collaborated with Heather Carlos and Ethan Berke, two NCCC researchers with expertise in geospatial mapping, to measure tobacco outlet density on a national scale, and with tobacco prevention expert Dr. Susanne Tanski, to ask the question—in the case of youth smoking, what matters more?

Adachi-Mejia and her colleagues evaluated a range of factors associated with using tobacco:

  • Socioeconomic factors like income and education
  • Minority status
  • Whether friends or family members use tobacco
  • Community rates of poverty
  • How many neighborhood stores sell cigarettes
  • Whether the teen is involved in any team sports
  • Exposure to smoking in movies
  • If the teen has sensation seeking personality traits
Individual risk factors most powerful

The research concluded that playing team sports, preventing youth from seeing smoking in the movies, keeping kids away from friends who smoke, and helping adolescents channel their desire to seek out exciting and novel experiences such as sports (instead of smoking) is more important than how poor your neighborhood is or how many tobacco retail outlets exist.  

How communities can fight teen smoking

The researchers discovered that the number of corner stores that sell cigarettes or the average cost of a home in a neighborhood is not as significant as the individual daily pressures that teens face: dealing with friends who smoke, seeing glamorized images of smoking in popular films, and managing their own needs, urges, or impulses to explore new, exciting experiences. It is here, inside the life and mind of today's teens where campaigns should focus to stop them from trying and using tobacco. 

 "The challenge to prevent youth smoking is big, but the steps are clear," said Adachi-Mejia. "First, communities should make team sports accessible and available to all youth who are interested in participating. Parents and other caregivers should encourage their kids to play sports. Second, parents and other caregivers should supervise the television programming and movies their children watch. How? Start by looking at TV and movie ratings. R-rated movies not only contain more smoking, but seeing a lot of these movies increases adolescent excitement-seeking behavior. Parents and caregivers often don't realize that preschoolers and elementary-school aged children should not be watching PG-13 movies; the 13 in PG-13 refers to the recommended minimum age. Finally, ask the youth in your life if their friends smoke. Keep them away from friends who smoke. Communities should have policies that discourage smoking, such as supporting clean indoor air laws and increasing the cost of cigarettes."

September 10, 2012