Girls smoke to appear cool for their boyfriends

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The Independent Online
TEENAGE girls do not start smoking because they want to lose weight - as is popularly believed - but rather because they want to appear tough and attract older boyfriends.

The popular assertion that a continual stream of pictures of "fashionably emaciated" supermodels such as Kate Moss results in girls turning to cigarettes as weight suppressants is not correct, according to a new study into smoking in adolescence.

The report, which looked at 3,500 schoolchildren, warns that young people are not at all influenced by media warnings on the harm smoking causes. They are fully aware of the health risks but just do not envisage themselves ever getting old enough to have to endure them.

While girls were generally more concerned about thinness than were boys, there was "little evidence to link this concern with cigarette smoking", found the team from the Trust for the Study of Adolescence. "Although a relationship with smoking behaviour and concern with thinness was identified the magnitude of this relationship was extremely small, accounting for less than 2 per cent of the variance in smoking behaviour," the report said. "It is very likely that this relationship may be much more a function of a general personality trait such as neuroticism than of a specific concern with weight."

Girls dismissed a link between smoking and weight with comments such as that from Alison, a Year 7 non-smoker, who said: "Rubbish. Doesn't make you lose weight - stop[ping] eating so much would help you lose weight but not smoking."

Instead, the perception of smoking among smokers and non-smokers alike is that smoking is "cool" and "rebellious". Smokers were seen as sociable, exciting and party-going whereas non-smokers were seen as sensible and quiet. Non-smokers reported pressure from smokers to start smoking.

The teenagers were well aware of the health risks of cigarette smoking but regarded it as cool to have a disregard for "old age" and long-term health. They were well aware that smoking was addictive and indeed used it as a reason for continuing to smoke. They also held positive beliefs about smoking, that it could aid mood and concentration. But the recital of health risks of smoking has become "ritualised" for many teenagers who "switch off" from such messages, preferring to trust their own knowledge of adult smokers who did not seem to be suffering from smoking-related disease.

The report concludes that health professionals should acknowledge that teenagers are testing out one of the most common social representations of adults, and that many people smoke because they enjoy it.

Smoking in Adolescence: Images and Identities is published by Routledge, price pounds 14.99.

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