Parental Absence Leads to Pre-Adolescent Smoking & Drinking

According to a study published this month by researchers at University College London, children who experience the absence of a parent by age 7 have an increased risk of abusing both tobacco and alcohol in their pre-adolescence.  The researchers also concluded that engaging in such risky health behaviors as a pre-adolescent may severely impact a child’s health down the line, as well as increase the chances of developing a dependency on tobacco or alcohol.

While the link is clear between childhood hardship and substance abuse during adolescence and later years, a lack of research existed regarding childhood hardship and such risky behavior before adolescence, by age 11.

Adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are what psychologists use as an umbrella term for any traumatic events during childhood that have long-lasting, negative effects on overall well-being later in life. These can include but are not limited to, the death of a parent, the incarceration of a parent, physical abuse, mental abuse, emotional abuse, or even parental divorce. Separate studies have shown that ACEs are directly linked to adolescent alcohol abuse, as well as to tobacco use during adolescence and adulthood. The alcohol-related study showed that “Adverse childhood experiences are strongly related to ever drinking alcohol and to alcohol initiation in early and mid-adolescence,” and the tobacco-related study showed that “Smoking was strongly associated with adverse childhood experiences.”

Details of the Study

The University College London collected data on 10,940 children who by age seven either had one or both parents die, or were separated from one or both parents. The subjects were a part of the larger Millenium Cohort Study, currently underway in the United Kingdom, which monitors 19,000 children for a wide range of behaviors.

According to the University College Londo study, children who experienced the absence of a parent were over 80% more likely to use tobacco and were 46% more likely to use alcohol by age 11. Children who experienced the death of (as opposed to the separation from) a parent were less likely to have consumed alcohol, but among those who had consumed alcohol, were more likely to drink enough to be drunk. However you want to look at these statistics, the conclusion of the study is impossible to argue with: “Children who experience parental absence should be supported in early life in order to prevent smoking and alcohol initiation.”

In addition to parental absence increasing the risk for early substance abuse, the researchers came to two other important conclusions. Once pre-adolescent substance abuse occurs, the chances of adverse health effects and the chances of developing a substance dependency both go up. These conclusions are based on already-established evidence of these effects later in life.

Early smoking has been proven to increase the chances for lung cancer. Alcohol consumption prior to age 13 has been proven to increase the chances for alcohol dependence later in life. Why would it not be the same for pre-adolescents? The University College London researchers believe it is the same for them.

Attachment Theory (and how it applies)

Developed by John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, attachment theory essentially states that a child with an emotional and physical attachment to his or her caregivers can give that child “a sense of stability and security necessary to take risks, branch out, and grow and develop as a personality.” Working in reverse, this can also mean that without such an attachment, “a great deal of developmental energy is expended in the search for stability and security.” Basically, children without strong parental bonds tend to be more fearful, more anxious, and more susceptible to stress.

Children without such attachment to their caregivers may also be more susceptible to substance abuse, which is parallel with the University College London study. Some doctors firmly believe that parental absence is a ripe ground for addiction. This is exemplified by the work of Dr. Ondina Hatvany in the case of ‘Becky.’

Her name has been changed, but Becky is one of countless people without parental attachments who developed an early substance abuse problem. Hatvany says, “I believe that because Becky had not experienced the regulatory effect that secure attachment would have provided, she had to get creative. She had to find a substitute to help her regulate; alcohol became that substitute.”

Pre-Adolescent Tobacco Use

According to the Surgeon General, tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the US. An astonishing 20% of all deaths, preventable or not, are caused by tobacco. Every day in America, nearly 4,000 people under age 18 smoke their first cigarette. More than four out of five everyday tobacco users begin using before graduating high school, and 99% of everyday tobacco users begin before age 25.

If discovering that one out of five tobacco users will die because of it doesn’t speak loudly enough, consider that tobacco-related injury and illness makes up 75% of all the money spent on healthcare in America. (This is well over a trillion dollars).

Cigars, cigarettes, electronic cigarettes, hookahs, vapor pens and chewing tobacco all hold the same risk. Nicotine is the active ingredient in all of these forms of tobacco use, which is known as one of the most addictive substances known to man. Nicotine reaches the brain within 10 seconds of consumption, and immediately releases adrenaline, creating pleasure and a buzz.

Cigar, cigarette and smokeless tobacco use among children has gone down, while electronic cigarette use has gone up. Still, these numbers are far too high.

According to Kids Health, children “might be drawn to smoking and chewing tobacco for any number of reasons — to look cool, act older, lose weight, seem tough, or feel independent.” The same logic applies to alcohol use, and furthermore, both tobacco use and alcohol use among children may be affected by the media. (This is discussed below, in the ‘Pre-Adolescent Substance Abuse and the Media section).

Pre-Adolescent Alcohol Use

Alcohol is the most prevalent substance abused worldwide. This fact is the same for full-grown adults as it is for pre-adolescents. A national survey revealed that the majority of people in the US who regularly abuse alcohol began doing so early on. In fact, 75% of high school seniors have been drunk. 25% of seniors had binge drank in the last week. Every single day, 8,000 American children try alcohol for the first time. Over 20% of children use alcohol by age 13.


However, alcohol affects children differently than it does adults. Psychologist Linda Spear of Binghamton University believes pre-adolescents and adolescents are more vulnerable to alcohol’s pleasurable effects than adults are. Also, she believes children are less apt to notice the sedative effects of alcohol, and therefore are more likely to drink until blacked out.

Spear’s theory is reinforced by a Canadian study performed by Éduc’alcool, which states that alcohol abuse is a form of thrill-seeking often used by young people. The pre-adolescent/adolescent brain is not fully developed, and consequences are not often fully considered at that age. According to Éduc’alcool, “Adolescents like intensity, excitement and arousal… Adolescence is a time when sex, drugs, very loud music and other high-stimulation experiences take on great appeal.” The study goes on to conclude that due to this combination of brain underdevelopment and desire for thrill, pre-adolescents and adolescents are much more susceptible to alcohol abuse than are teenagers and those older.

Risk of Bullying or Being Bullied

It is worth noting that according to a study published by the National Library of Medicine, both the perpetration of bullying and the victimization of being bullied increase for pre-adolescents who use alcohol. Over 175,000 Georgia students, from 6th to 12th grade, were studied to determine the link between early alcohol use and bullying/being bullied.

The results show that 24.4% of students studied reported bullying, as either perpetrator or victim, and of those students, nearly all had used alcohol in the last month. “Pre-teen alcohol use initiation was significantly associated with both bullying perpetration and victimization relative to non-drinkers,” concluded the researchers. Victims of bullies are up to nine times more likely to commit suicide, and bullies themselves have been shown to usually have some adverse health issues.


Pre-Adolescent Substance Abuse and the Media

Each year, the tobacco industry spends $3.6 billion on advertising, and the alcohol industry spends $2 billion. Although these amounts change, they are actually low-end estimates. (The American Academy of Pediatrics, or AAP, believes the number to be $25 billion for tobacco, alcohol and prescription drugs combined). Although both industries deny any advertising geared toward children, “research documents that cigarette and alcohol advertising and promotional campaigns are especially appealing and attractive to teenagers and children,” according to the American Public Health Association.

In 1991, when tobacco could still be advertised in the media, 93.6% of children could identify Joe Camel, the cartoon mascot for Camel cigarettes. Only 57.7% of adults were able to identify the mascot. (91.3% of six-year-olds were able to identify Joe Camel at the time, the same percentage of six-year-olds who were then able to identify Mickey Mouse).

The AAP published a study in 2010 regarding tobacco and alcohol advertising and its effect on children. According to the study, up to 30% of tobacco and alcohol use among children can be attributed to advertising. The most heavily advertised cigarette brands are the most popular, and the same goes for alcohol brands. Although tobacco ads have long been removed from television, it is estimated that children see up to 2,000 ads for alcohol annually.

Perhaps the most shocking fact regarding children and substance advertising has to do with the comparison between youth-oriented magazine ads and adult-oriented magazine ads. “Teen-oriented magazines contain 48% more advertising for beer, 20% more advertising for hard liquor, and 92% more advertising for sweet alcoholic drinks than do magazines aimed at adults of legal drinking age.”

In Conclusion

Not all families can stay together forever. Death occurs, divorces happen, and sometimes parents just don’t stick around. However, what can be prevented is the abuse of alcohol and tobacco by children. Obviously, not every seven year old who has an absent parent will abuse drugs. However, after seeing that these children are at greater risk than others to do so, education and intervention needs to happen at a young age.

“Early uptake of risky health behaviors is a feasible mechanism through which disparities in disease outcomes may emerge,” wrote one of the researchers in the University College London study. “Early life may be an important time to intervene in order to prevent the uptake of risky behaviors.”