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With Nicotine Addiction, It's Like Mother, Like Daughter

A new analysis shows parents have a powerful influence on their children's smoking habits, and nicotine-addicted mothers have a particularly strong effect on their daughters.
(Photo: zipporah/Flickr)

(Photo: zipporah/Flickr)

Parents shape their children in a lot of ways, from speech patterns to moral character. Add smoking to that list: According to new research, parents have a huge impact on their child's chance of taking up smoking and developing a nicotine addiction—with the surprising caveat that moms appear to have more influence than dads.

The new study is hardly the first to examine how a family member's smoking might affect their children's likelihood of taking up the habit; in short, the more parents and siblings smoke, the more likely their children will. Many of those studies, however, rely on kids to report their parents' smoking. Researchers have also given somewhat less attention to the fine details, particularly when it comes to nicotine dependence, rather than smoking per se, as well as how parents and their offspring's race, ethnicity, and gender might influence the decision to smoke.

The daughter of a mother with a nicotine habit was nearly four times as likely to be addicted than one of a non-smoking mother.

Denise Kandel, a Columbia University professor of sociomedical sciences, and colleagues at Columbia and the New York State Psychiatric Institute took a look at those issues using National Survey on Drug Use and Health data from 2004 through 2012. That data had a couple of key advantages over past surveys. For one, the survey's big—about 35,000 parent-child pairs participated. Plus, the researchers note, it's the only survey to assess nicotine addiction in both parents and their children ages 12 to 17. NSDUH records a wide range of demographic data along with questions about family and friends' drug use, including smoking, making it easier for researchers to separate out the particular consequences of parental smoking on adolescents.

Parents, it turns out, have a powerful influence on their kids' smoking. Even among parents who are former smokers, Kandel and her colleagues estimate their children were 50 percent more likely to smoke compared with kids whose parents never touched a cigarette. If parents smoked and showed signs of nicotine dependence their children were nearly three times as likely to smoke compared with children of non-smokers. Being white or having a parent with no college education also increased the odds a child would start smoking.

The results for kids' nicotine addiction were similar, with an interesting exception: Mothers' smoking habits had a striking effect on their daughters' prospects for nicotine dependence. The daughter of a mother with a nicotine habit was nearly four times as likely to be addicted than one of a non-smoking mother, and daughters of mothers who'd quit were two and half times as likely. The data wasn't as strong for moms who smoked but weren't addicted, although that too seemed to increase the odds of daughters' addiction. Fathers, meanwhile, had no discernible influence on their sons' or daughters' addiction to nicotine, and mothers had no effect on sons.

"Our findings are important from a public health perspective because they identify groups of young people at risk for smoking and ND and suggest that reducing smoking by parents would reduce smoking by the next generation," the authors write.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.