Hispanic Children Growing Up With Smokers at Significant Risk of Becoming Smokers

Recent data collected by the Hispanic Community Health Study/Study of Latinos (HCHS/SOL) demonstrates that Cubans and Puerto Ricans growing up in smoking households are twice as likely to become smokers as non-Hispanics growing up with smokers. The reasons for the discrepancy can only be guessed at, but the findings show an important vulnerability for a segment of the U.S. population.

Smoking Among Hispanics

Smoking and other kinds of tobacco use have generally gone down drastically in the U.S. over the last several decades. The problem is not eradicated, though, and tobacco still contributes to millions of preventable deaths. Hispanic women have some of the lowest rates of smoking among all demographic groups at just 7 percent, but Hispanic men are smoking much more. Over 17 percent of Hispanic men smoke.

Statistics break down smoking by country of origin and show that Cubans, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans are the heaviest smokers among all Hispanic groups.Cubans smoke the most at 21.5 percent, with Mexicans and Puerto Ricans close behind at 20.1 and 18.6 percent. Puerto Rican women are more likely to smoke than women of other nationalities.

The HCHS/SOL Study

The HCHS/SOL is an ongoing study that is the largest of its kind. Researchers working on the project collect health data on the very diverse and large U.S. Hispanic population. It is supported by the National Institutes of Health and other government organizations and is affiliated with several universities. The recent findings regarding smoking were published in The Journal of Preventive Medicine.

That smoking is connected to childhood exposure was already known. Smoking is a learned behavior, not an instinctual one. Children growing up with parents who smoke are always at a greater risk of becoming smokers as adults than children who did not have smokers in the household. They learn to smoke through observation and imitation.

The interesting new finding in the current study was that Cubans and Puerto Ricans are most at risk for becoming smokers later in life if their parents smoked. These two groupings of participants in the study showed the highest rates of being exposed to smoking as children at 59 percent and 47 percent. Twenty-six percent of the Cubans in the study became smokers as adults, and 32 percent of Puerto Ricans did as well. This is as compared to other participants with smoking rates around 20 percent.

Why Cubans and Puerto Ricans are more influenced by childhood exposure to smoking is not exactly known, but the researchers developed some hypotheses. They suggest that because the U.S. has stricter anti-smoking policies than these two countries, it could play a role in the discrepancy. They also suggest that education is an important factor. In the U.S., residents are more aware of how harmful cigarettesare to health thanks to public education campaigns. These ideas are far from perfect, however, considering that many of the study participants had been living in the U.S. for several years and still became smokers.

More research will be needed to understand why certain Hispanics are at a greater risk for becoming adult smokers. In the meantime, the findings give experts a place to intervene and educate to prevent children from becoming smokers. Clearly Puerto Rican and Cuban children are among the most vulnerable when it comes to smoking and its health consequences. If interventions can be made and
educational campaigns can be targeted toward these children, we may be able to prevent many of them from becoming smokers.

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