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Young Teens Tied Strongly to Drinking and Drug Use

Attitudes toward smoking influence young teenagers' use of drugs and alcohol, say researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. The researchers analyzed confidential surveys taken by 2,400 sixth- and seventh-graders in New York City. Questions dealt with substance use and several psychological factors that previous research suggests may be related to drug use.

For girls, friends were shown to be central. Ambivalent or permissive attitudes within their social group toward smoking were associated with multiple-drug use, defined as two or more of the following behaviors: smoking, drinking and marijuana use. This wasn't the case with boys, whose multiple-drug use was instead predicted by the extent to which they perceived smoking to be prevalent in their larger age group — not just among their friends.

If a teenager feels smoking is socially acceptable and widely practiced, he or she is much more likely not only to smoke, but also to drink and possibly use marijuana, says lead author Jennifer A. Epstein, M.D., assistant professor of public health in the Division of Prevention and Health Behavior at Weill. "While the differences between how boys and girls are influenced by these social factors are subtle, they could help us develop new gender-specific educational tactics for preventing these behaviors."

The study also revealed several factors that were the same for boys and girls. When their friends drank alcohol or smoked, or when their parents had permissive or ambivalent attitudes toward drinking, both teenage boys and girls were more likely to report multiple-drug use. Other variables included teenagers' inability to refuse drugs and to achieve goals through their own efforts.

"A parent's opinion matters. Moms and dads are critical role models and should let their attitudes against drug use be known. It's also important to keep an eye on their child's social circle, since, especially for girls, it's their friends who are so central to influencing their behavior," says Epstein. "At the same time, parents can do things that reduce their child's risk for using drugs, such as teaching them to set goals and assert themselves."

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