People who are the victim of racial prejudice between the ages of 11 and 23 are 80% more likely to take up smoking, a study has revealed.
Kids who experience racism between the ages of 11-13 and again between 14-16 were more likely to report smoking their first cigarette before the age of 16. This confirms previous studies that racism can be a trigger for stress responses and unhealthy habits, such as smoking.
The study defined racism as "bullying, insults, negative media stereotyping and, rarely, physical assault".
Participants frequently noted that they also perceived racism as "hidden or covert" rather than "full-on". The common reaction would be to "brush it off", "ignore it" or use humour as a defence mechanism.
Alternatively, children who have good relationships with their families or visit a place of worship regularly are less likely to take up smoking.
The study did not find any correlations between ethnic backgrounds or gender related to smoking. However, it noted that members of ethnic minorities were less likely to take up smoking than their white peers.
Looking at questionnaires and interviews conducted with the Determinants of Young Adult Social Well-being and Health (DASH), researchers at King's College London (KCL) analysed the answers of 6,500 pupils from 51 London schools regarding smoking habits.
A first survey had been completed when the pupils were aged between 11 and 13, with a follow-up survey to 4,785 when they reached 14 to 16. More than 600 participants were followed up at 21-23 years old, and 42 gave qualitative interviews.
The KCL team, along with researchers at University College London and the Medical Research Council and Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow, found teens who had experienced some form of racism were 80% more likely to have smoked than those who hadn't.
Although survey answers don't prove that racism causes smoking, the qualitative interviews confirmed the team's hypothesis that racism has a powerful impact on teens' health habits.
"An important point here is that racism affects both physical and mental health outcomes. Addressing racism is an important public health priority for young people," said Professor Seeromanie Harding, the principal investigator of the DASH study
"Despite recent decreases in smoking in the UK, the Office for National Statistics has said that 58% of heavy smokers report having started smoking regularly before the age of 16," she added.
The research team looked into how parental support and religious structure could help "buffer" the negative impact racism has on teens, preventing them from taking up smoking or drinking, although they found parents and religion had benefits that were more consequential than direct.
"Parents appeared to indirectly instil coping mechanisms, for example by nurturing pride in their
cultural heritage, instilling a sense of self-worth and future aspirations, and passing on a
strong religious faith and values," Dr Ursula Read, the study's lead author, told IBTimesUK.
The study notes that racism impacted smoking habits regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic disadvantage and parental smoking. However, white British pupils reported different experiences than their peers from ethnic minorities.
"The White British young adults who were sampled for the qualitative interviews discussed
that although ethnic groups mixed at school, there were times when people clustered
together with others from similar cultural backgrounds," Read and Harding told IBTimesUK.
Whereas "Ethnic minority participants on the other hand gave clear examples of experiences of racism at individual and structural levels which are corroborated by other studies." Such examples included Muslim pupils being called "terrorists" and black pupils being stereotyped as aggressive, they added.
"Public health organisations should consider carefully the impact of discrimination and disadvantage on these kinds of risky health behaviours," said Read.
Although the findings are specific to London, the team believes they can be applied to other urban settings in the UK.