Public Release: 

Parent, guardian job loss may boost smoking among adolescent family members

USC researchers' survey of middle schools students in Los Angeles area shows escalation of smoking risk

University of Southern California

LOS ANGELES, CA, May 19, 2004 - As if they didn't already have enough to worry about, grownups who lose their jobs may have something else to add to their headaches: According to a new study, their adolescent children have an almost 90 percent greater chance of becoming smokers within a year of the job loss than young people whose families haven't suffered this blow.

"Previous research has shown that stressful life events like divorce and abuse are associated with risky health behaviors," Jennifer B. Unger, the study's lead author, said. "This study extends previous research by identifying a specific life event - job loss in the family - as a health risk factor." The study examined if a family member's job loss could help predict whether an adolescent in that family would begin smoking within the year; the results were published in the May issue of the scientific journal Health Psychology. Unger and her co-authors are researchers with the Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Center (TTURC) in the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California.

"In times of economic and employment instability, many more families could face losing their jobs," Unger said. "It's important that we do more research to understand the impact of job loss and develop interventions to help all family members learn to cope with it without turning to substance use or other behaviors that harm their health."

The longitudinal study focused on 2,016 students from 24 urban, ethnically diverse schools in Southern California who, when surveyed in the sixth grade, indicated that they had never smoked. A year later, as seventh graders, they were surveyed again. The wide-ranging paper-and-pencil survey asked about tobacco use and related psychosocial and cultural variables, including questions about lifetime smoking (Did the student ever try smoking, even a few puffs?) and past 30-day smoking (Did the student smoke on at least one of the 30 days preceding the survey?).

When retaking the survey in seventh grade, the students who reported a job loss in the family since the previous survey were 87% more likely to have tried smoking or to have smoked in the past 30 days than students whose families hadn't lost jobs. This was true even after controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, acculturation, socio-economic status, parents' education, grades in school, communication with parents, parental monitoring, and parents' smoking.

Although conducted a year later, the second survey asked the children if an adult in their family has lost his or her job in the past six months because researchers were concerned that the students might not accurately recall events over an entire 12-month period. Additionally, the job loss questions asked about "any adult in your family" rather than "parents" to accommodate students whose primary caregivers are stepparents, grandparents or other guardians.

The survey also found that if students had good grades, communicated well with their parents, were monitored by their parents, or were Asian, they had a lower risk of smoking.

The students in this study were young adolescents who had a very low prevalence of smoking to begin with. The researchers caution that the effects of a family member's job loss on older and higher risk adolescents are not known and need to be studied. More research is also needed to determine the impact of job loss on adolescents' progression to additional risk behaviors, including alcohol and other drug use, violence, and delinquency.


This research was made possible by support from the California Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program and by a grant from the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute on Drug Abuse to the USC Transdisciplinary Tobacco Use Research Center (TTURC).

Jennifer B. Unger, Jeffrey E. Hamilton and Steve Sussman, A family member's job loss as a risk factor for smoking among adolescents. Health Psychology, Vol. 23, No. 3, May 2004.

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