- The Washington Times - Monday, September 5, 2005

Toddlers as young as 2 are influenced by whether their parents smoke and drink alcohol, according to a new study in a journal affiliated with the American Medical Association.

The findings by Dartmouth College researchers, published in the September issue of Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, are significant because pre-adolescents and adolescents are the age groups targeted by most tobacco- and alcohol-prevention programs.

“The results from this study suggest that alcohol and tobacco prevention efforts may need to be targeted toward younger children and their parents,” wrote the authors, led by Madeline A. Dalton, associate professor of pediatrics at Dartmouth Medical School.

The study found that when pretending to shop for a social event with friends, in controlled play-acting involving fake “cigarettes” and “alcohol,” children ages 2 to 6 were nearly four times more likely to choose cigarettes if their parents smoked.

The study also found that they were three times more likely to select wine or beer if their parents drank alcohol at least once a month.

What’s more, young children who viewed movies rated PG-13 or R were five times more likely to get beer or wine for the get-together, suggesting the media might also influence attitudes about tobacco and alcohol long before children ever consider using these products themselves.

The researchers used role-playing scenarios to evaluate pre-schoolers’ attitudes toward alcohol and tobacco use. They compared those findings to data from surveys of the children’s parents on their tobacco and alcohol use and their children’s movie-viewing habits.

In an interview yesterday, Mrs. Dalton, the mother of two teenage sons, said she was particularly surprised at some of the comments the children made while “shopping” at a miniature grocery store and hosting guests at the doll parties for which they bought the goods.

“As a parent, these were real eye-openers,” she said.

She cited an example of a 4-year-old girl who bought cigarettes for a party with four dolls.

“She bought three packs, but then said, ‘We need some more,’” Mrs. Dalton recalled.

Included in the Archives report was another vignette involving a 6-year-old boy, who purchased only cereal and cigarettes. Mrs. Dalton said the boy bought his favorite cereal, Lucky Charms, but he could not recall the name at checkout time. However, he did know that he had Marlboro cigarettes.

The children bought an average of 17 of 73 products in the store. Of the 120 youngsters who participated, 34, or 28.3 percent, bought cigarettes, and 74, or 61.7 percent, bought alcohol.

The 2-year-olds were asked only to pick a doll and take it shopping. Children 3 to 6 shopped and also took part in the social events. The experiments took place in a behavioral laboratory at Dartmouth.

Mrs. Dalton recalled a 6-year-old girl whose shopping cart was “getting too full,” so she put two bottles of wine back on the shelf, saying, “He gets too drunk.”

After “eating” foods bought for the party, a 4-year-old girl announced, “The girls will now go shopping. The boys will stay here and drink beer.”

The researchers concluded that the data “suggest that observation of adult behavior, especially parental behavior, may influence preschool children to view smoking and drinking as appropriate or normative in social situations.”

Mrs. Dalton and her colleagues said more study is needed to learn whether “these expectations predict future use” of these potentially harmful products. They will seek federal and private funding for a long-term study involving 400 or 500 children.

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