An ecological approach to understanding youth smoking trajectories: problems and prospects


  • 1

    Murray & Hannen (1990) report that intraschool correlations are higher among 7th, 8th and 9th graders than among 10th−12th graders for smoking measures. Murray et al. (1994), on the other hand, find that 11th−12th grade status is related to an increase in the intraschool correlation for smoking behavior. It should be noted that the Murray et al. (1994) work combines and summarizes results from many more surveys than does the Murray & Hannen (1990) research.

  • 2

    The literature is unclear as to which dimension of personal religiosity (e.g. church attendance, belief in God, importance of religion, etc.) is most important in predicting substance use. In fact, some research shows that the effects of these various dimensions may vary at different stages of substance use trajectories. The findings of Kendler et al. (1997, p. 327), for example, suggest that ‘Traditional religious beliefs may be most important in the decision to ever use a substance, but religious devotion may particularly influence the ability to quit or maintain low levels of use’.

  • 3

    Other studies, without the explicit focus on understanding the socio-cultural context of risk-taking, substance use, etc. corroborate such findings in that awareness of risks associated with substance use can actually be significantly positively related to use (e.g. Yarnold 1998) or, at a minimum, non-significant (Yarnold & Patterson 1998). These studies are in contrast to others (e.g. Bachman et al. 1990), who suggest that associated dangers/risks are related to lower or declining rates of use.

  • 4

    While the ‘inter-individual differences’ listed in Fig. 2 are primarily demographic and social–psychological variables, other important interindividual differences exist, including neurologically-based differences, personality differences, etc.

Pamela Wilcox
Department of Sociology
University of Kentucky
41531 Patterson Office Tower
KY 40506–0027


Non-random patterns of aggregate youth smoking rates and trajectories across communities suggest that individual-level characteristics cannot account fully for the behavior in question. Instead, at least part of the explanation must lie somewhere within the community context. Such community-level contextual effects can impact directly both group and individual-level behavior (e.g. main effects), and they can also condition the effects of individual-level factors on individual behaviors (e.g. moderating effects). This paper reviews previous research examining community-level contextual effects regarding smoking and substance use more generally and identifies important limitations of this extant work, thus defining an agenda for future empirical studies. Next, the (in)compatibility of previous empirical findings with current theoretical models is discussed. In offering an alternative to these existing models, the paper concludes with presentation and discussion of a multi-level, integrated model of adolescent smoking trajectories. In this model, community/institutional forces are presumed to impact smoking above and beyond individual-level main effects. These posited community-level forces are broad and varied, representing school characteristics, neighborhood demographic characteristics, religious culture, media influence, economic context, health services and so on. In addition to exhibiting contextual main effects, the effects of community in the proposed multilevel model can be mediated by community-level processes, including the processes of control and socialization discussed herein. Also, community-level characteristics may interact in producing certain tobacco-use outcomes and, perhaps most importantly, they may moderate or condition the effects of interindividual differences on smoking.