When teens start (and stop) smoking varies by race

"I think that the most important point is that there are big age-related differences in substance use by gender and race/ethnicity," says Rebecca J. Evans-Polce. (Credit: Peter Beug/Flickr)

White teenagers are significantly more likely to smoke cigarettes than African-American or Hispanic teens. But after age 20, things begin to change.

A new study shows that throughout their 20s, African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to pick up a cigarette-smoking habit, while the numbers start to decrease for whites.

Published in Addictive Behaviors, a survey of 18.5 year olds shows that 44 percent of  whites smoked, 27 percent of Hispanics did, and 18 percent of blacks. But at 29 years old the numbers were much different: the number of whites smoking cigarettes dropped to 40 percent while the number of Hispanics rose to 30 percent and the number of blacks rose to 31 percent.

Age, race, and substance use

“I think that the most important point is that there are big age-related differences in substance use by gender and race/ethnicity,” says Rebecca J. Evans-Polce, postdoctoral fellow in the Bennett Pierce Prevention Center at Penn State.

“In particular, African Americans show an increased prevalence in cigarette use much later than white adolescents. We need to think about tobacco prevention interventions that are targeted towards young adults, when use is increasing among African Americans, instead of just for younger adolescents.”

The survey also showed that use of alcohol was higher for males than for females during adolescence. Cigarette and marijuana use were similar between males and females, although slightly higher for males adolescents.

Targeted intervention

The researchers looked at four sets of data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a survey conducted beginning in 1994, and repeated in 1996, 2001 and 2008 with the same individuals.


“Our research corroborated previous research showing differences in when individuals use substances depending on their race/ethnicity and gender,” says Evans-Polce. “But seeing the large difference particularly in cigarette use by race/ethnicity was surprising and being able to see this all graphically really brought the point home in a novel way.”

The researchers used an innovative statistical method to plot the prevalence of substance use among whites, blacks, and Hispanics on graphs that tracked the individuals by age and separately plotted the substance use of males and females.

“This research is important for targeting interventions for substance use at the right ages and for the right socio-demographic groups,” says Evans-Polce.

“In order to better understand why these disparities in substance use behavior exist, we need to look at how risk and protective factors for substance use change as individuals age and for different racial/ethnic and gender groups.”

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the National Cancer Institute supported this work.

Source: Penn State