Study takes preschoolers cigarette shopping
How many smoking footprints can be made upon a child's mind before curiosity culminates in that first fateful "what the heck" moment? At what age do smoking impressions begin registering? A new study in the September issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine has produced disturbing evidence that preschoolers are intrigued by smoke billowing adults.
Conducted in a behavioral laboratory at the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, the study, entitled "Use of Cigarettes and Alcohol by Preschoolers While Role-playing as Adults," involved a grocery shopping role playing scenario by 120 children ages 2 to 6.
Children pushed a miniature shopping cart through a miniature store stocked with 73 miniature products (113 items) that included miniature cigarette packs.
Researchers walked each child, individually, through a standard script. Children ages 3 to 6 were asked to choose two dolls while explaining that the child would pretend to be one of the dolls and the other doll would be a friend who was invited over to watch a movie and have something to eat.
As described by the study, "the scenario began in the living room. Acting as the friend, the researcher commented that there was nothing to eat and suggested to the other doll (acted by the child) that he or she go to the store to get some 'things.' At the store, the researcher told the children that they could buy whatever they wanted and that when they finished shopping or when their cart was full, they should come to the checkout counter."
With parents watching behind a 2-way mirror (mostly moms), their child selected from 10 meat and dairy items, 16 fruits and vegetables, 13 breads and cereals, 15 dessert items, 23 snack and candy items, 17 condiments, spreads and prepared foods, 13 medicine, toiletries, and non-food items, 11 non-alcoholic drinks, 9 beer and wine items, and 6 cigarette items - 3 packs of Camels and 3 packs of Marlboros.
Dr. Madeline A. Dalton, Ph.D, who headed the study, found that the average child placed 17 items in their shopping cart and that 28.3% of children bought cigarettes. Children were quizzed to ensure a raw understanding that the cigarette packs were in fact cigarettes.
When do preschoolers pay the most attention? Cigarette purchases were lowest among 2 year-olds at just 12% and highest among 3 to 4 year-olds at 36.5%.
How did parental smoking impact cigarette purchase rates? Dr. Dalton found that among families where one or both parents smoked that 59.3% of children purchased cigarettes, compared to just 19.4% where neither parent smoked.
Possible sources of influence for the 19.4% whose parents do not smoke include a growing ocean of convenience store advertising, smoking on TV, in movies, magazine advertising or watching adults smoke in public places, including restaurants.
Dr. Dalton's study is the first to show that preschool children develop scripts of social life as an adult, a role playing script that for far too many includes smoking nicotine and drinking alcohol.
The study found that a far greater percentage of youth purchased alcohol than cigarettes (28.3 vs. 61.7%). Although alarming, alcohol's roughly 10% chemical dependency rate means that although youth experimentation will produce serious risks associated with impaired judgement, it is far more forgiving when it comes to establishing permanent chemical dependency.
A June 2005 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology found that 86.8% of youth who smoked nicotine at least once daily were already chemically dependent using dependency standards contained in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, 4th Edition.
Dr. Dalton not only captured preschooler cigarette purchase rates but also some rather revealing comments. While reading them keep in mind that most of these children could not yet read:
- A 6-year-old boy identified 2 of the products he was purchasing as "cereal" and "cigarettes." When asked if he knew what kind of cereal it was, he looked at the box of Lucky Charms and said, "I don't know, but it's my favorite cereal." When asked what kind of cigarettes he was buying, he replied, "Marlboros."
- At the checkout counter, a 3-year-old girl identified the cigarettes she was buying. Camels: "Animal ones for Daddy." Marlboros: "Mommy smokes these."
- A 6-year-old boy offered Barbie the newspaper and cigarettes: "Honey, have some smokes. Do you like smokes? I like smokes."
- While selecting Camels a 4-year-old girl said, "I need this for my man. A man needs cigarettes."
- A 6-year-old girl's first purchase was 2 packs of cigarettes. She then selected wine but put it back, saying, "That's only for grown-ups - it's not good for you."
- On returning from the grocery store, a 6-year-old boy passed out cigarettes to the dolls. "These [Marlboros] are for you, and these [Camels] are for me." As he found more, he gave the same brand to each doll. "I wish I could smoke . . . but I won't, because it's yucky."
- In the grocery store, a 5-year-old boy selected the wine and asked, "Is this alcohol?" The researcher replied, "Yes," and the boy said, "I want it, and I want some smokes." After a pause, the boy asked, "Do you go to church?" The researcher replied that she went to synagogue, and the boy said, "Oh, my church says you can't smoke or drink alcohol."
- On returning from the store, a 6-year-old girl gave the male doll 2 packs of cigarettes. "Here, honey, I brought you some Marlboros. And I bought some for myself."
- A 6-year-old boy said to one of the female dolls, "Here's cigarettes. Let me take one out for you. Let me light it. Blow on it. Now for me."
- After serving "birthday cake" and "beer" (actually wine), a 5-year-old girl said, "Now we are going to smoke; here's one for you, and one for you, and one for you ..." There were only 3 packs of cigarettes and 4 dolls. "Oh dear, we need some more."
- After "eating," a 6-year-old girl said to her "friend" [the other doll], "Let's smoke these now. Here, which ones do you want?" The child took the Marlboros and gave the Camels to her friend. "Let's go outside and smoke these." The researcher asked why they had to go outside, and the child replied, "Because it's bad for your lungs or something."
The study notes that several of the children's comments demonstrated a high level of brand awareness for cigarettes that was not apparent for alcohol. It speculates that perhaps it reflects a child's appreciation of brand loyalty among smokers. Dr. Dalton's study shatters the myth that preschoolers don't think about smoking. It suggests that adult reluctance to discuss what preschoolers are witnessing, because of a fear of being suggestive, is ignoring the damage already done.
Contrary to the $14 billion dollar annual marketing perception painted by the tobacco industry, smoking is not an adult activity. According to the CDC almost 90% of new smokers continue to be children or teens. Roughly two-thirds of first-time youth smokers soon find themselves hooked solid, many after smoking only a few cigarettes.
Thousands of childhood invitations to smoke will today culminate in the brains of roughly 2,000 U.S. youth beginning to grow millions of nicotinic receptors in eleven different regions. It will leave them de-sensitized to their own natural neurochemical flow.
Deprived of their sense of smell and ability to experience extended relation, robbed of up to 30% of functional lung capacity, and branded with an endless need to feed upon nicotine, childhood is over. Any attempt to return home will be met with tremendously hurtful anxieties, anger, frustration, bargaining and depression.
Slowly society is waking to what the tobacco industry has long known. We are beginning to realize that smoking nicotine is extremely addictive and without new youth smokers the tobacco industry simply cannot keep pace with the 438,000 smokers who annually smoke themselves to death, each an average of 13 years yearly. Aside from visible parental smoking there is plenty of blame to go around.
Today an eight year-old cannot go near a convenience or grocery store without interior and exterior signs and thousands of pretty colored boxes inviting them to stir their senses, to "come to where the flavor is," to taste "pleasure," to be kool, or sample exotic flavors.
Thousands of candy racks across America now have cigarette ads hanging above them. Are they really there by chance?
Maybe someday parents will no longer smoke within view of their children and there will be more smoking in R rated movies than youth rated movies. Maybe someday all tobacco will be sold only within stores to which youth are denied access, stores filled with tobacco ads but none on the outside. Maybe someday Popular Science and Popular Mechanics will no longer attempt to chemically enslave inquisitive minds. Maybe.
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