To prevent smoking, reach out to young adults, RTI International researcher says

Longitudinal study identifies four groups of smokers; implications for new smoking prevention campaigns

teenage boys smoking tobacco

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, North Carolina — Anti-smoking campaigns often target young teenagers, focusing on preventing them from trying their first cigarette.

But these efforts could be more effective if they were tailored to a wider range of people and smoking behaviors, according to a new study by an RTI International researcher.

In a study published this week in PLOS One, researchers at RTI International, the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of California, Merced, identified patterns of smoking behavior among young people. In the study, the researchers collected information about cigarette smoking from almost 9,000 individuals as they grew from adolescence to adulthood (12 to 30 years old).

They identified four groups of smokers:

  • Experimenters, who dabbled in smoking but quit by their early 20s,
  • Early established smokers, who started young and were still smoking at age 30,
  • Quitters, whose smoking peaked at age 17, and
  • Late escalators, who did not start smoking until their 20s

“Not all smokers are the same,” said Lauren Dutra, a research public health analyst at RTI. “We should not only target those who smoke every day, but also those who, like the late escalators, don’t smoke daily by age 30, a pattern that is more common among racial and ethnic minorities.”

Data for the study came from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth. Based on demographic differences among the four groups, the researchers made recommendations for smoking prevention and cessation programs, ad campaigns, and other public policies that relate to tobacco use.

Noting that smokers in the “early established” group were more likely to have children and to have lower levels of education, the researchers recommended that existing early intervention programs for families should start helping their clients quit smoking.

Smoke-free laws and policies in public places, meanwhile, could help prevent the young adults in the “late escalators” category from smoking.

“Messages aimed only at keeping teens from trying cigarettes will miss people who don’t start smoking until later in life,” Dutra said. “Anti-smoking programs should include young adults, especially young parents.”