Popular high school students more likely to be smokers, study says

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(CBS News) A new study shows that the most popular kids in school are also the most likely to be smoking.

"Popularity is a strong predictor of smoking," study author Thomas Valente, professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine, told HealthDay. "We haven't done enough to make it cool not to smoke."

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According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 80 percent of adult smokers began smoking before the age of 18. About 19.5 percent of high school students smoked at least one cigarette and about 8.9 percent used smokeless tobacco in the previous month before they were surveyed in 2009. On any given day, about 3,800 people under the age of 18 smoke their first cigarette.

For the study, which was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health on Sept. 6, researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) and University of Texas surveyed 1,950 high schoolers in the 9th and 10th grades in seven Southern California schools. The majority of the student body was Hispanic or Latino.

The teens were asked if they smoked cigarettes, how often they smoked, how many students their age they thought smoked, how their close friends felt about smoking and who their five closest friends were at school.

The students named the most as a friend were deemed the most popular. Researchers found that the popular kids were more likely to start smoking earlier than those who were less popular. Students who became smokers were more likely to be friends with other smokers, and those who thought their friends were smoking were more likely to smoke, even if that assumption was wrong.

However, the number of kids students thought were smoking was less likely to influence their decision compared to if their close friends were smoking.

Researchers pointed out that three other studies - one that looked at kids at a Mexican high school, one that involved sixth and seventh graders across Southern California and another that surveyed high school students across the U.S. - came up with similar results.

"Adolescence is a time when students turn to others to figure out what is important. These are four different samples, now, coming from different places -- and the finding is consistent," Valente said in a press release.

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