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Does stress prompt puffing?

BYU study finds a link to school competitiveness

PROVO — A new study written in part by a Brigham Young University professor lights up some new views about Joe Camel's cool quotient on school campuses.

To wit: Researchers found that a school's environment — particularly if the school boasts a reputation of fierce academic competitiveness — plays a major role in whether stressed-out students start puffing Marlboro Lights.

That was the bad news of the study published in the current issue of The Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

But here's a bright spot: Ethnic minority students who attend schools populated mostly by other minority students are less likely to smoke, according to the report.

The researchers, Robert Johnson of the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center and BYU sociologist John Hoffmann, hope the report will be used to create new approaches for antismoking education efforts.

Without reservation, the duo told the Deseret News the most interesting finding of the study is the part focusing on students at scholastically demanding schools.

The study says that students at highly competitive schools — identified by the number of accelerated classes, teachers with graduate degrees and the desire among students to attend college — are more prone to start smoking than peers with similar grades and test scores at less-competitive schools.

The expectation to excel tends to "be more intensely felt at schools that attach so much importance to achievement," said Johnson, the study's main author.

"It's not just teachers," he said. "It's parents and the students themselves."

Often, he said, frustrations stemming from not being able to meet the high scholastic expectations apparently are strong enough to cause teenagers to start smoking.

By way of example, he pointed to the rise in teenage smokers during the 1990s. That

increase coincided with a widespread adoption of standardized tests in American schools, he said.

"This doesn't mean we shouldn't have highly competitive schools and tone down everything," Hoffman said. "We as parents and educators need to carefully watch students so they don't feel overly frustrated and turn to risky behaviors such as cigarette smoking."

To complete the study, researchers used data collected in a national survey of more than 30,000 teens in the late 1980s.

Johnson and Hoffman used the numbers to focus on common characteristics of students who didn't smoke at the start of the survey — but had started lighting up at the end of the survey two years later.

They were statistically able to factor out personal and family influences — such as economic status and single-parent families — that may cause kids to smoke. Then they were able to look at the separate effect of the school's environment.

When they looked at data regarding race, they found a school's environment is important for ethnic minority students. They found lower smoking rates among ethnic minority students who attended schools with high numbers of ethnic minorities of the same race.

Johnson attributes such "protective effect" to the attitudes of black and other minority adolescents, who also smoke at lower rates than whites, according to statistics.

"Black adolescents have less need to take up smoking because identifying oneself as a black in American society is often a potent symbol of opposition in its own right," he said.

Hoffman said the study bolsters an argument that schools play a large role in deterring cigarette smoking.

"It's such an important health behavior to study because we've still got a quarter of the population smoking. We want to understand why teens are doing it," Hoffmann said. "We found that at least a couple of school factors do influence smoking, in addition to families and other risk factors. So schools can make a difference."