8 February 2021.

For Aboriginal teens, strong social connections and good mental health could be the key to staying smoke-free, according to new research based on the SEARCH study.

The stats on Aboriginal smoking are often dire, focusing on rates of use and the impacts on health. But authors of a new study into teen smoking have set their sights on prevention – asking why some young people choose not to smoke in the first place.

“Adolescence is a really important period when health behaviours are established, and with smoking we know that almost everyone who becomes a smoker takes it up in adolescence and young adulthood,” says Simone Sherriff, project officer at the Sax Institute, and co-author of the new study. “While there is a lot of important work around adults who smoke and supporting them to quit, we’ve got a lot to gain from preventing young people from starting to smoke in the first place.”

In a research team led by Dr Christina Heris from the University of Melbourne, Simone and other co-authors analysed data from 106 Aboriginal adolescents aged between 12 and 17, and their caregivers, from four Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services in urban New South Wales.

They found that 83% of adolescents had never smoked regularly, and 60% lived in smoke‐free homes. Most tellingly, participants were significantly more likely to have never smoked regularly if they had: good mental health, good family relationships, a mother as primary caregiver, stable housing, no history of using alcohol, were not sexually active, and had no criminal justice interactions.

The study concludes that promoting good mental health and strengthening social connections could prevent future teens from picking up smoking.

Tackling smoking with a strengths-based approach

Simone says the findings show that the influences on teen smoking are about much more than just knowledge and beliefs about whether smoking is harmful or if people think it’s cool or not.

“We hope that by using a strengths-based approach and looking at factors linked with non-smoking in Aboriginal adolescents, this information will give our partners and those working in health promotion the evidence that we need to take care of the broader drivers of Aboriginal health in a holistic way, and which in turn will support young people to stay smoke-free.”

The research was made possible thanks to data collected as part of the Study of Environment on Aboriginal Resilience and Child Health (SEARCH), which was co-created with Aboriginal communities in partnership with the Sax Institute, and provides the largest data set on Aboriginal children and young people living in urban areas.

Read the full research here.

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