Smoking by a non-biological parent is as influential as smoking by biological parents in determining whether their teenager smokes, reveal the results of a Cancer Research UK study published in the journal Addiction*.

Researchers based at Cancer Research UK’s Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London, interviewed 650 teenagers from 36 schools in South London who reported living in step-families. The students were participating in a five-year ‘Health and Behaviour in Teenagers Study’ (HABITS) and were assessed annually from age 11-12 to age 15-16.

They had to report their smoking status – which was verified by a test to measure the level of cotinine in their saliva – cotinine is a by-product of nicotine and indicator of tobacco smoke exposure. They also had to report if their parents smoked, and if they lived with a step-parent, whether that step parent smoked.

Lead researcher, Jennifer Fidler, said: “The influence of smoking by parents on whether their children smoke is well known – teenagers with one or more parent who smokes are much more likely to smoke than those with no smoking parents. But we think this is first study to examine the extent to which the smoking behaviour of step-parents predicts adolescent smoking behaviour.

“Our findings confirm the importance of social influence on whether young people start to smoke, and suggests that step-parents, as well as parents should play a role in smoking prevention.”

Jean King, Cancer Research UK’s director of tobacco control, said: “Smoking is a serious problem among young people – 16 per cent of boys and 24 per cent of girls aged 15 are regular smokers – so we welcome any new research that looks at why teenagers may start to smoke.

“Children whose parents smoke are much more likely to become adult smokers, greatly increasing their risk of cancer in later life – so we hope this research will encourage both parents and step-parents to try and quit smoking altogether.”


For more information, please contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 0207 061 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059


*Smoking status of step-parents as a risk factor for smoking in adolescence. Jennifer Fidler et al. 2008. Addiction. Vol 103, pages 496-501.

The Health and Behaviour in Teenagers study (HABITS)

The HABITS study is a five year survey of the health and behaviour of over 5000 11-16 year olds from South London. It has been completed and is currently being analysed. The smoking sections of this study allow researchers to track the development of smoking throughout the teenage years, establish factors associated with smoking and predictors of smoking uptake. Genetic data collected from this study will provide an understanding of genetic factors associated with smoking variables in children and adolescents.

Children and smoking

By the age of 15, over half of children have experimented with smoking and one in five are regular smokers. Since the 1980s girls have been more likely to smoke regularly than boys.

Children who smoke often become regular adult smokers. They also suffer immediate health consequences from smoking. Child smokers are more susceptible to coughs, increased phlegm, wheeziness and shortness of breath, and take more time off school.

From 1 October 2007, it became illegal to sell tobacco products to anyone under 18.

Why do children smoke?

There are a number of reasons why children may try smoking.

Tobacco advertising

Research has shown that advertising may encourage children to start smoking. Even adverts aimed at over 18s are attractive to children who aspire to adult behaviour. Direct cigarette advertising is now banned in the UK.

A sibling or parent who smokes

Siblings and parents are role models for children. If a child’s parents smoke they are four times more likely to smoke themselves.


All teenagers experiment – often with activities that they believe make them appear more ‘grown up’. Trying new things and making mistakes is part of the normal learning process. But the danger with trying smoking is that nicotine is very addictive.

What can you do if your child has started smoking?

Talking to teenagers about smoking can be tricky. Read these tips if your child is smoking and you want to try to help them quit.

  • If you smoke yourself, give up. It will help if you can set a good example.
  • Don’t panic or overreact. If you are very worried you may want to talk to another adult before talking to your child.
  • Choose a time to talk to your child when you’re calm and they don’t want to be somewhere else.
  • Ask lots of open questions to find out how they started smoking, how often they smoke, who they smoke with etc. Be aware that starting conversations with ‘why’ can seem aggressive.
  • Make sure you really listen to what your child is saying.
  • Explain that it’s better never to start smoking as it quickly leads to addiction.
  • Point out how expensive smoking is and discuss what else your child could do with the money.
  • You can try discussing the health effects of smoking. But young people will often have learnt about the consequences of smoking at school and may not want to think about their long-term health.
  • Keep talking about smoking from time to time in a non-confrontational manner. At the same time make it clear that you do have your own views and house rules.
  • Offer your love and support. Focus on the positives and try to build your child’s self esteem. Acknowledge any progress they make with giving up.
  • Giving up isn’t easy for adults or children. Be aware of the difficulties your child may be facing and the isolation they may feel if all their friends are smoking.

Giving up smoking

There are professionals available to help you give up smoking. The NHS has a range of services on offer including stop smoking groups and one-to-one counselling. You are up to four times more likely to succeed if you use NHS support and stop smoking medicines such as patches or gum to manage your cravings. To find out more about these services call the NHS Smoking Helpline on 0800 169 0 169, open 7am-11pm every day, or visit the NHS Go Smokefree website.

Quit also have a helpline with information and advice to help you give up smoking. Call 0800 00 22 00 between 9am and 9pm or visit the Quit homepage. Quit have also developed a youth stop smoking programme called Quit Because.

About Cancer Research UK

  • Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK’s vision is to beat cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK carries out world-class research to improve understanding of the disease and find out how to prevent, diagnose and treat different kinds of cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK ensures that its findings are used to improve the lives of all cancer patients.
  • Cancer Research UK helps people to understand cancer, the progress that is being made and the choices each person can make.
  • Cancer Research UK works in partnership with others to achieve the greatest impact in the global fight against cancer.
  • For further information about Cancer Research UK’s work or to find out how to support the charity, please call 020 7009 8820 or visit our homepage.