Researchers interviewed 824 ninth-graders enrolled at four schools in Flint, Mich. All of the students had a grade point average of 3.0 or lower. They were asked about their smoking habits as well as those of family and friends. The researchers used census data to determine the socioeconomic characteristics of the students' neighborhoods.
"Researchers are getting more interested in how social and environmental factors influence adolescent behavior," said study co-author Marc Zimmerman, Ph.D. "Kids who are at risk for a certain behavior such as smoking do not all become smokers. So, we tried to figure out why some overcome these risks while others don't."
African-American youths reported less cigarette use overall than white youths. Across racial lines however, young people involved in extracurricular school activities or programs at church were less likely to smoke even though they were exposed to same neighborhood risks as the smokers.
"Traditionally, interventions have focused on risk reduction," said Zimmerman, a professor with the University of Michigan School of Public Health "These results tell us that instead of focusing on risk, we should be looking more toward creating opportunities for kids to take part in school and church activities to help them overcome the risks. Perhaps if we try enhancing strengths instead of fixing problems, we could have a positive effect on kid's lives."
The study appears online and in the October issue of The American Journal of Public Health.
The study looks at very disadvantaged African-American communities where there has not been enough investment in programs that can be protective, according to Frances Stillman, Ed. D., co-director of the Institute for Global Tobacco Control and associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
"The idea that communities can be protective is worth pursuing," said Stillman, who was not involved with this study. "Communities can be part of the solution instead of being seen as part of the problem this is a concept that needs more research and communities need more investment in programs and policies to protect youths."