Popular students in middle school and high school are more likely to smoke, according to four studies conducted over a 10-year period. Students from the United States and Mexico participated in the studies. But the lead author of the research at the University of Southern California says these findings can be applied to other countries as well.
Tom Valente, a professor of preventative medicine at the University of Southern California, says popular students are more likely to smoke and become smokers earlier than students who are less popular. “You know being popular comes with a price, and that price is to make sure you retain that position of popularity," he said.
And smoking a cigarette is one way of retaining that position. Valente says that students who started smoking in the 9th and 10th grades are more likely to become friends with other smokers. “I don’t think there’s any reason to think that these findings would be restricted only to someone [in a] particular demographic group or one ethnic group or one culture," he said.
Now in college, Bea Donoso, who originally is from Spain, started smoking in high school. She says she was considered popular. “We started because we were with our friends, [at] parties; we started something to be with your friends and be cool," she said.
Twenty-seven-year-old Khalid Abusubait from Saudi Arabia started smoking when he was 15. He says he wants to quit, but it has not been easy. “I quit like six months, and I got back to smoking," he said.
Cara Lee is an alcohol and tobacco education counselor in a school district of 25,000 students in Southern California. She says the earlier a person starts smoking, the harder it is to quit. “There’s a lot of research about [the] effects of drugs and tobacco on [the] developing brain -- how [the] earlier they start, the more addictive it becomes. They really do create that dependency," she said.
But Lee says truly popular students tend not to be the ones who smoke. “I do see other alternative groups who are trying to fit in who may perceive themselves as popular or who want to be popular. Maybe they think they have to take those risk behaviors, such as smoking, to create a better image of themselves," she said.
Cynthia Gomez, the head of student and family services at the same school district, says there is a time in a child’s life that is critical in determining whether a student participate in harmful behaviors such as smoking. “Eleven to 15 [years of age]. So 6th grade to 9th grade is that area where they really do need a lot of direction," she said.
To help students make healthy choices, some high school students volunteer to be mentors for younger children. Sixteen-year-old Victoria Smith says that when she mentored 5th and 6th graders, she had to change their views about cigarettes. “They knew it was bad for you, but they were still thinking it was cool to do it - like it would make them the popular kids at school," she said.
Fourteen-year-old Janelle Rivas says student mentors like herself are more effective than adults in curbing smoking among younger children. “It would stick with them more from me because I’m kind of their same age group," she said.
School officials say positive role models at school combined with teaching teens good values at home will help them make healthier life choices.