Schools that crack down on smoking could stub out the habit before it starts

30 April 2012

Cracking down on youngsters who smoke and trade cigarettes in school could be the most effective way to reduce the number of teenagers who take up the habit, according to a new study from the Institute of Education, University of London.

Smoking and cigarettes are a key part of socialising for many teenagers. The researchers say tackling this in schools could be key to preventing the habit of smoking. Their research review, which examined data from more than 9,000 young smokers in seven surveys, found that friends are the most frequently reported source of tobacco.

In many schools, children were found to share cigarettes quite openly and some sell them to other students for profit. They also found evidence that young people see smoking as a way to bond with peers. Developing tough school policies that target the very visible – and apparently organised - exchange of tobacco among young people could make a substantial difference to reducing teenage smoking, say the researchers.

The researchers, from the IOE's Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre) found that younger teenagers, girls and occasional smokers were more likely to obtain cigarettes from "social sources", such as friends or peers at school, while boys, older children and regular smokers were more likely to use shops.

The researchers argue that, given the well-documented evidence that the younger children start smoking the greater the risk to their health, it is particularly important to block these "social sources".  Although the study was unable to document the effects of specific schemes taking a hard line on cigarettes in school, the evidence shows that these should be developed and tested.

"Thus if we can begin to tackle this visibility, this is likely to reduce smoking rates. Which, in turn, will further reduce the visibility of the peer market in school and the socialising opportunities that the peer market provides," says the report.

After peers, the second most common source of tobacco was from shops – almost invariably small independent stores such as newsagents and sweet shops rather than supermarkets – followed by "proxy purchasing" (asking someone else to buy tobacco). The report cites the "apparent complicity" of adults as facilitating teens' access to cigarettes.

The report says it is important to crack down on shops selling cigarettes to minors and to address proxy purchasing. "It is important to explore reasons for, and to identify ways to combat, lax implementation of regulations in smaller stores."

The review, which also looked at findings based on interviews with some 500 young people in six UK studies, revealed that teens find it easy to access cigarettes. However, risk, cost and "looking young" make it harder, says the report, Young People's Access to Tobacco: a mixed-method systematic review.

For more information or to speak to the researchers please contact the IOE press office:
Diane Hofkins: 020 7911 5423
James Russell:  020 7911 5556

Editors' notes
Young People's Access to Tobacco: a mixed-methods systematic review by Dr Katy Sutcliffe et al is published by EPPI Centre, Social Science Research Unit, Institute of Education, University of London. The study was funded by the Department of Health

The report draws together findings from three interconnected pieces of work:
•     A synthesis and statistical meta-analysis of survey data from young people in the UK
•     A synthesis of qualitative research from young people in the UK; and
•    A descriptive map of international research activity examining the impact of interventions on non-retail access.

EPPI Centre
The Evidence for Policy and Practice Information and Co-ordinating Centre (EPPI-Centre) is part of the Social Science Research Unit at the Institute of Education, University of London. Since 1993, we have been at the forefront of carrying out systematic reviews and developing review methods in social science and public policy. We are dedicated to making reliable research findings accessible to the people who need them, whether they are making policy, practice or personal decisions. The EPPI-Centre offers support and expertise to those undertaking systematic reviews.

The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute's research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be "world leading". The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its "high quality" initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students "to want to be outstanding teachers". The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 19 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities.