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Learning from the positive stories of Aboriginal teenagers who don’t smoke

20 March 2017

Christina Heris

A new Prevention Centre PhD project is studying the experiences of Aboriginal teenagers around smoking to shed light on the positive influences needed to prevent others from taking up the habit.

PhD candidate Christina Heris said understanding factors that protect against smoking uptake, such as positive relationships, not smoking in the home, mental health and cultural identity, could lead to more opportunities for prevention in Aboriginal communities.

She said a lot of research focused on why young people experiment with cigarettes and take up smoking.

“We need to understand those risk factors, but there is another side to this story because most teenagers don’t smoke,” Ms Heris said.

“I’m going to flip it and tell that positive story. I want to look at the potential positive protective factors against smoking – what is the lived experience of a young Aboriginal person who actively chooses each day not to smoke, even in a high prevalence environment?”

Ms Heris is a receiving a Prevention Centre scholarship to complete her PhD through Baker Heart & Diabetes Institute and Monash University. She said the project fills an important research gap in addiction in young Aboriginal people. It forms part of a wider Prevention Centre project on a comprehensive approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tobacco control.

Why this research is needed

Even though Australia is leading the world in tobacco control, rates are not dropping as quickly among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as in other populations. Aboriginal people are still 2.5 times as likely to smoke as non-Aboriginal people.

Tobacco use is also high in young Aboriginal people, with ABS data showing 31% of 15-24 year olds smoke daily.

As with all smokers, most Aboriginal smokers take up the habit during adolescence. However, recent ABS data show there have been significant reductions in the smoking rates for young Aboriginal people aged 15-17 years, from 33% to 19% between 2002 and 2012–13. Ms Heris’s project is working to identify the protective factors that are unique to this group.

“Getting adult smokers to quit is a critical part of tobacco control, but given almost all regular smokers start in adolescence, preventing young people from becoming smokers in the first place is also really important,” Ms Heris said.

“That might involve stopping any kind of experimentation with cigarettes, but it might also include helping those young people already smoking occasionally or regularly to understand nicotine addiction and support them to stop before they become long-term, established smokers.”

How the project will address the issue

Ms Heris will conduct quantitative analysis of existing data sets covering tobacco use in young Aboriginal people, including the SEARCH partnership study, the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children and possibly the Australian Secondary Students’ Alcohol and Drug Survey, to look at the social and environmental factors associated with smoking.

The project also involves qualitative research to find the positive story behind the data and determine how positive experiences and attitudes of Aboriginal non-smoking teenagers might be used to develop health communications targeting adolescents.

“In the end this research will be useful both to community organisations running their own local health promotion programs but also to policy makers funding tobacco control grants and designing campaigns,” Ms Heris said.

Helen Signy, Senior Communications Officer