Accounting for childhood risks when looking at early smoking and drinking

Even when accounting for many risk and protective factors in early childhood, researchers find that early cigarette smoking and alcohol use are linked to worse adjustment at age 11.


Initiation of cigarette or alcohol use during childhood or early adolescence has been associated with later problems including addiction, use of illegal drugs, fighting, arrest, school failure, injury, and poor health. But it is unclear whether the negative long-term links to early substance use are due to something set in motion by the early substance use itself. The problems found later may be due to other differences such as early childhood conditions that form risk and protective factors.


A study by co-author Rebecca Evans-Polce and colleagues at the Pennsylvania State University explores a wide range of conditions experienced by children from infancy to age 7. The researchers consider the same kids at age 11 – have the kids now smoked a cigarette (3%) or had more than a few sips of alcohol (13%)? How is their adjustment in terms of school engagement, academic achievement, and wellbeing?


The study matches individual kids by their propensity for early substance initiation, thus comparing a child who has used a substance to one who hasn’t, both having the same propensity for early use. The study finds that school engagement and wellbeing are lower for the kids who have smoked a cigarette or have had some alcohol by age 11. Academic achievement does not differ substantially between the substance initiators and non-initiators.


The authors note that this study does not show causality: it does not say that early substance use causes poorer adjustment. To show causality in a scientific study would require the unethical and horrible undertaking of randomly selecting children to use cigarettes and alcohol. But the study does show that, while holding even the propensity for early use based on early life circumstances, trying cigarettes or alcohol by age 11 is linked to poorer school engagement and wellbeing at age 11.


Results are drawn from the Millennium Cohort Study (MCS), a British study that follows the families of children born between 2000 and 2002. The findings described here are based on 13,221 MCS kids at their 11-year-old survey and their prior parent surveys. MCS is funded primarily by the Economic and Social Research Council (UK). Manuscript preparation was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, both part of the National Institutes of Health.


Staff, J., Maggs, J. L., Cundiff, K., & Evans-Polce, R. J. (2016). Childhood cigarette and alcohol use: Negative links with adjustment. Addictive Behaviors, 62, 122-128. doi: 10.1016/j.addbeh.2016.06.022.