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Cigarette Smoking Key to Future Risky Behaviors Study Shows

It can be hard for educators, family members and even friends to know when a child begins to make choices that could end his life. Researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center are making that distinction easier. A recent study shows that the age a child begins to smoke cigarettes is the key.

The study, published in the March issue of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, says middle school aged adolescents who begin to smoke cigarettes at age 11 or younger engage in twice the number of risky behaviors that could end their life.

"The age of onset of cigarette smoking has the highest correlation to other health risk behaviors," according to Robert H. DuRant, Ph.D., the Director of the Brenner Center for Child and Adolescent Health and Professor and Vice-chair of the Department of Pediatrics and the author of the study.

Those risky behaviors can include: riding in car with a drinking driver, carrying a knife or gun to school, fighting, inhalant use, having a suicide plan and using other substances such as marijuana and cocaine, according to DuRant.

"This study shows that adolescents who begin to smoke at earlier ages are much more likely to engage in behaviors that have the potential of ending their life in the near future, not down the road," DuRant said. " Other important factors associated with engaging in multiple risk behaviors are the use of alcohol and marijuana at an early age. Cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption are often considered gateway drugs to other substance abuse, because they are more easily accessible. Teens who smoke or drink, often find peer groups to reinforce their smoking and drinking and introduce them to other more dangerous drugs like cocaine as they mature."

The study also found that early use of cocaine, being male, being white, and not doing well in school, were also significantly associated with the number of health risk behaviors these middle school students reporting engaging in, DuRant said.

The study sampled over 2,000 students from 53 randomly selected North Carolina middle schools. Students were asked to rate on a Health Risk Behavior Scale the number of risk behaviors they had participated in from a list of 16 different behaviors.

"What this says to educators and the community is that we need comprehensive health education programs in our schools," DuRant said. "We need to explain to children the risks associated with these behaviors and teach them skills on how to avoid these risks to their health and well-being.

"We also need to provide after-school programs for our children, helping them with homework, teaching them to enjoy math, science, art, etc, and educating them about practical things like how to balance a checkbook."

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