Anthropology Students Study Teens' Opinions About Smoking

Much of the research conducted using money from the State of Florida’s $11.3 billion tobacco settlement has focused on the medical and physiological effects of tobacco use or how advertising affects teenage smokers.

But when University of Florida anthropologists went out last summer and talked to young people in Gainesville about smoking, they found that common perceptions about teenage smoking are not always true.

“This was an ethnographical and anthropological study that allowed us to meet respondents where they were most comfortable,” says UF anthropology Chair Allan Burns. “The idea was to map where young people are smoking and what they have to say about it.”

The UF group — which included doctoral students Lem Purcell, Ade Ofunnian and Maxine Downs; master’s students Rob Freeman and Ryan Theis; and undergraduates Mattie Gallagher and Nicollette Parr — spent time at shopping centers, movie theaters and parks, talking to about 40 young people between the ages of 11 and 16, roughly half males and half females. The students often worked in pairs, approaching teenagers to tell them about the study and then asking permission from their parents to interview the teens in their homes. Blaming the tobacco industry has been a central theme of Florida’s anti-smoking “Truth” campaign commercials, and master’s student Rob Freeman said that even though interviewers never brought up the commercials, the ads always came up.

“In every single interview we did, the teens mentioned the commercials,” Freeman says. “All but one of the teens we talked to thought they were positive.”

To better understand the political and economic motivations of tobacco use among teenagers, master’s student Ryan Theis looked at non-conventional smoking habits among a specific group of young people.

“I observed a downtown venue where a lot of politically active kids hang out. I gathered a lot of observational data, and it was very evident that these teens would not smoke the popular corporate brands such as Camel or Marlboro,” he says. “They smoked the off-beat, unknown brands, and they felt they were making a statement.”

In addition to observing teen smokers in downtown Gainesville, the group spent time staking out local convenience stores.

“We sat outside for several hours at a time, and we never saw a young person go in the store and try to buy cigarettes,” doctoral student Lem Purcell says. “The teens told us that if they smoked, they got the cigarettes from friends. Sometimes older friends would buy them. In a few cases parents actually bought cigarettes for their kids.”

While some research has speculated that many young people start smoking because of peer pressure and the glamorization of smoking on television and in advertisements, the UF group received answers that implied the opposite might be true.

“Most of the youths we interviewed think peer pressure is just a crazy idea because they don’t experience it. The times they have smoked, they said it was because the cigarette was there and available, not because they were pressured into it,” says Gallagher.

Through the interviews, the group learned that younger kids appeared to experiment with tobacco all the way to high school, but then things change.

“At the high-school level, it’s no longer about curiosity. They start identifying themselves as smokers. And this has implications for reducing the number of smokers because if we have ads telling young kids to stop smoking, but they don’t see themselves as smokers, then that advertising goes right over their heads,” Burns says.

Freeman points out that even though the younger teens might not be smoking now, they say it is a definite possibility as they grow older.

“The younger kids we interviewed are very aware of smoking,” he said. “Even though some middle school kids said they had never smoked, when asked about smoking in high school, they replied that they might because that would be another stage in their life.”

by Allyson A. Beutke