More Aboriginal people taking up smoking as young adults: study

PhD candidate Christina Heris

PhD candidate Christina Heris has discovered a recent trend in Aboriginal smoking uptake, with more people starting to smoke as young adults rather than as teenagers.

She found fewer young Aboriginal people are taking up smoking overall, and those who do are starting at an older age.

“We are seeing a jump in people taking up smoking in their twenties that we have never really seen before,” Ms Heris said.

“It used to be accepted that if a young person came in as a non-smoker after 18 they would never take it up. Now we’re seeing kids who were hard-core non-smokers who then start in their twenties.”

Ms Heris is undertaking her PhD through the Prevention Centre as part of work to develop a comprehensive approach to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander tobacco control. Her paper has recently been published in Public Health Research and Practice.

She embarked on her study after the local peak body, the Victorian Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (VACCHO), noticed that 20 to 24 year-olds were now more likely to smoke than 15 to 19 year-olds.

Her paper extends previous national analyses of smoking initiation trends by investigating smoking prevalence among 15 to 24 year olds, and the age at which 18 to 24- year-old smokers and ex-smokers started to smoke.

She used ABS survey data combined with face-to-face interviews of a random sample of Indigenous people. The data sources included the ABS National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (NATSIHS), Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey (AATSIHS) and National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS).

The study found that Aboriginal smoking trends were following those in the broader community, where the age of smoking initiation is increasing. The average age for the first full cigarette smoked has now increased from 14 years to 16 years, with a third of smokers not trying their first cigarette until after they are 18.

In young Aboriginal adults, this trend may be because they missed tobacco control efforts targeted at teenagers in recent years, or because efforts to control tobacco were not sustained as they got older, Ms Heris said.

She said the decline in teenage smokers will have substantial health benefits for Aboriginal people because there were growing numbers of who had never smoked, along with thousands more who had quit.

However, her findings show it is important to also target tobacco control messages at young adults, who are vulnerable to smoking as they leave school and home and have greater access to cigarettes because of their age and income.

“There may be some positive health impacts of fewer smokers commencing in early adolescence, as those who start earlier are less likely to make successful quit attempts and are more likely to become heavy smokers,” Ms Heris said.

”But we need to understand more about why young Aboriginal people take up smoking as they transition into adulthood, and what we can do to prevent it.

“We need to continue to reduce smoking initiation, not just delay it.”