Attention and Inhibition Affect Adolescent Smoking Behaviors

Experimentation with substances such as nicotine, alcohol, and drugs usually begins in adolescence. Teens and pre-teens who partake in activities involving addictive substances are at increased risk for dependency. Numerous studies have attempted to identify the factors that influence addictive behaviors and risk taking in adolescence. Much of the existing research points to impulsivity and inhibition as two markers for risk-taking behaviors. Other studies suggest that these behaviors are based on neurocognitive functioning patterns. The underlying mechanisms that lead young people to maladaptive behaviors must be exposed so that interventions can be designed to address those specific mechanisms and thus decrease the likelihood of negative behavior patterns in teens most at risk. To this end, Dr. Zeena Harakeh of the Interdisciplinary Social Science Department at Utrecht University in the Netherlands recently led a study that explored neurocognitive functioning and its relationship to smoking behaviors in a sample of participants ranging in age from 11 to 16 years old.

The study tracked the attention, inhibition, and impulsivity of 1,797 participants over 6 years. Harakeh looked at the onset of smoking and the persistence of smoking behaviors at three different points during the study period. The results revealed that the participants that began smoking at the youngest ages were those with the lowest levels of attention. Additionally, the teens with low levels of inhibition had higher levels of smoking initiation. More inhibited teens exhibited less smoking persistence over time. The combination of poor attention and low inhibition proved to result in earlier smoking initiation and higher rates of daily smoking over time. The results of this study are consistent with other research that demonstrates a link between cognitive functioning and risk taking and, in particular, drug and alcohol use. Harakeh pointed out that self-regulation, sustained attention, and increased inhibition appear to act as mechanisms that protect against risky behavior and in this case, smoking. Harakeh added, “This may have important clinical implications when developing and implementing antismoking interventions and programs.”

Harakeh, Z., de Sonneville, L., van den Eijnden, R. J. J. M., Huizink, A. C., Reijneveld, S. A., Ormel, J., et al. (2012). The association between neurocognitive functioning and smoking in adolescence: The TRAILS study. Neuropsychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0029217

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  • smokey


    July 26th, 2012 at 4:25 PM

    Younger kids feel the pressure from their peers to start smoking. What needs to be done is that there needs to be limited access to cigarettes. Stores have to stop selling to minors, and adults need to stop sharing.

  • Pamela Y

    Pamela Y

    July 27th, 2012 at 4:10 AM

    Children who are tempted to begin smoking at a young age are those who feel this need to fit in with what their friends are encouraging them to do, but they have not been given the strong sense of self that they need to be able to say no.

    This is the thing that needs to be addressed in any sort of prevention or intervention programs that are introduced to school age and teenage children. You have to have some programs that address strengthening their self esteem and confidence, and teach them that the friends who are real friends will remain true to them even if they decide that smoking is not for them.

  • ERIC


    July 27th, 2012 at 1:47 PM

    Every child has problems, but some have problems bigger than others, it may be due to conditions at home or a personality trait. And it is an excellent idea to actually get to know this and see how intervention programs can be implemented that would be most beneficial to the particular child. Every child in a group could be guided to quitting using tools that best suit these other aspects that could be the reason for smoking in the first place.

  • xena


    July 28th, 2012 at 9:58 AM

    How about parents actually paying attention to their kids and their friends every once in a while?

    That might be a good way, maybe even the best way to curb this teenage smoking epidemic that we seem to be fighting.

  • Melissa


    July 29th, 2012 at 9:29 AM

    Pretty well known fact that the more behavioral and academic problems that kids have the more likely they will be to pick up some bad habits like smoking. They do this and fall in with the wrong crowd, yadayadayada, and then there are a lot more issues than just bad grades that their parents are having to worry about then!
    I have to think that some of this could so easily be avoided if we had an intervention process in place very early on, something where there are people who care in positions where they can step in before things get too out of hand and help these kids start making better overall life decisions.
    Much of this has to begin at home of course, but there is so much that the schools can do too.

  • Derrick


    July 31st, 2012 at 12:28 AM

    Attention and Inhibition?Maybe.But attention and inhibition are not universal terms and while a person may have inhibitions about one thing,it does not speak of his inhibitions or openness to another,does it?I could have my inhibitions about drinking because maybe I had an unccle who was an alcoholic and drinking is generally taboo in my family due to that.But I could still not have inhibitions about smoking and could well turn into a nicotine addict!

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