Is smoking transmitted from one generation to another and why should we care?

* This is a guest blog post by Alexi Gugushvili who is a leading author of a recently published article on parental transmission of smoking. Alexi is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention of the University of Oxford and a Research Fellow at Nuffield College. He has earned PhD in Political and Social Sciences from the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Alexi’s current research focuses on social stratification and mobility, health inequalities, public attitudes and opinion, and causal inference in social science. For his latest research updates follow Alexi on Twitter: @AxGuli  

Is smoking transmitted from one generation to another and why should we care?

One of my primary research interests is the process of intergenerational transmission of advantages and disadvantages. If life chances depend on ascribed factors rather than achieved ones, they are inherently unjust. In relation to individuals’ wellbeing, I specifically study if there is any effect of intergenerational social mobility on health outcomes or whether a direct transmission of health-related behaviours takes place from one generation to another.

Smoking is one of the leading causes of mortality in industrialised nations. Previous scholarship has shown that intergenerational transmission of smoking takes place in various settings and populations. One major limitation of these studies is that they are almost exclusively concerned with intergenerational transmission of smoking to adolescents and individuals in their 20s and 30s, while the role of parental smoking later in life has been under-researched.

The levels of smoking are especially high in post-communist countries which have experienced aggressive campaigns by transnational tobacco corporations since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. Using novel PrivMort data-set, in our study, we estimated how parental smoking is associated with their middle-aged and older offspring’s smoking in Belarus and Russia. A methodological contribution of this paper is that it adequately accounts for social origin variables separately for fathers and mothers and does not overestimate the effect of parental smoking on their children’s smoking propensity by using multilevel Poisson regressions.

We find that paternal smoking significantly increases the chances of smoking among sons aged 42-65, while having a regularly smoking mother significantly increases the chances of smoking among daughters of similar age. In absolute terms, this equates to about 9–12 percentage points higher prevalence of smoking in Russia and Belarus among women with smoking mothers in comparison to women with never smoking mothers, which is remarkable, considering that in our sample of middle-aged and older women, the rate of smoking is less than 10%.

These results corroborate both psycho-analytic theory which claims that daughters tend to unconsciously internalise maternal behaviours as well as with social learning theory that suggests that girls are consistently and positively reinforced when they learn to be like their mothers and imitate maternal behaviour.

Our findings are relevant in interpreting trends and patterns of smoking among middle-aged and older Russian and Belarusian men and women, with implications for subsequent generations, an issue of importance given increasing smoking among women. if parents are aware of the implications of smoking and how much they can influence their sons and daughters’ propensity to smoke even in the later stages of their life course, some might have an extra reason not to start smoking or to quit after smoking initiation.


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