Students Staff

27 September 2009

Children of single mums more likely to smoke

Colchester Campus

Research by a team at the University of Essex has shown that the children of single mothers are considerably more likely to smoke as young adults than children who are brought up by both parents.

The research carried out by Professor Stephen Jenkins, Professor Marco Francesconi and Dr Thomas Siedler reinforces the views of medical professionals as well as psychologists that growing up in a family headed by a lone mother may raise an individual’s stress levels and lower their self esteem with these factors, in turn, leading to a greater chance of smoking.

Although the research was based entirely on data from Germany, the findings are likely to be relevant for other countries including the UK. They also believe there are clear implications for policy makers, suggesting that policies aimed at reducing tobacco consumption may be more effective if they acknowledge the long-term influence that childhood family disruption may have so-called “risky behaviours” later on in life.

The team used the German Socio-Economic Panel to research the lives of about 2,500 young adults across a 22 year-period. They also controlled for the socio-economic background of people by comparing those who grew up in a family from the former West and East Germany (when Germany was divided) and a third group of young adults living in West Germany who had a parent from overseas or ‘Guestworker’.

About 20 percent of individuals in the West German sample, 11 percent in the
Guestworker sample, and more than 30 percent in the East German sample, lived with a lone mother during childhood. In the West German sample 46 percent of young adults who lived with a lone mother during childhood smoked, compared with 32 percent from those who lived with two parents. For the East German sample, the corresponding proportions were 53 percent and 39 percent; for the Guestworker sample, 55 percent and 37 percent.

Respondents were not only asked if they smoked but whether they smoked more than ten or twenty cigarettes a day. It was also noted whether they had started by the age of 16 or the age of 21.

The effects were greater for those children whose mother was divorced rather than simply unmarried or where a father had died. In particular:

• Living with a lone mother is associated with an 8 percentage point increase in the case of the West German sample, and a 16 percentage point increase in the case of the other two samples.

• Similar positive associations emerged for both smoking 10+ cigarettes a day and smoking 20+ cigarettes a day. Likewise, living with an unmarried mother during childhood is associated with an increased probability of starting smoking either by age 16 or by age 21.

• These results are robust to different estimation methods and to the possibility that family structure and smoking share a mutual association with some unmeasured true causal factor (e.g., family stress).

• The rise in smoking prevalence associated with a 5 percent increase in the proportion of individuals from lone mother families would be offset were the proportion of mothers smoking also to decrease by 2.3 percent. Declines in maternal smoking prevalence of this magnitude would be remarkable according to other studies for Germany.

Commenting on the findings from the research, Professor Francesconi said: 'Our research indicates that individuals who experience lone motherhood during childhood are more likely to smoke, and hence are at greater risk of poor health. This finding is clear cut even when we control for a wide range of factors and regardless of a young adult’s background. Policies aimed at reducing tobacco consumption may be more effective if they acknowledge the long-term influence that childhood family disruption may have on later life risky behaviours.'

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