Susan Yoon, an assistant professor in the College of Social Work, is the main researcher on the study ‘The Type and Timing of Child Maltreatment as Predictors of Adolescent Cigarette Smoking Trajectories.’ Credit: Courtesy of Susan Yoon

Ohio State researchers say they may have found a smoking gun in teens smoking cigarettes: childhood maltreatment.

Ohio State research published in January by Susan Yoon, assistant professor in the College of Social Work, and doctoral candidate Rebecca Dillard found that physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect in early childhood years — along with physical abuse in adolescence — predict an increase in cigarette use among teenagers. 

“The information gained from this study can help inform more effective forms of teen smoking prevention and intervention by including trauma-informed approaches to consider the role of maltreatment in the adoption of smoking behaviors,” Dillard said in an email.

Yoon, the leading researcher, and Dillard collaborated with Julianna Nemeth, an assistant professor of health behavior and health promotion in the Ohio State College of Public Health; Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a professor in the Ohio State Department of Psychology; Julia Kobulsky, an assistant professor of social work at Temple University; and Yang Shi, a university fellow at University of California, Berkeley. 

Dillard said the study found specific time periods of vulnerability in children. 

We were able to uncover that there are distinct, critical periods of development during which children are vulnerable to the effects of maltreatment on their subsequent behavior in adolescence,” Dillard said. 

This study used data from the Longitudinal Studies of Child Abuse and Neglect, Yoon said. Called LONGSCAN, the data was collected at five study sites located across the United States from children ages 4, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14, 16, and 18 from July 1991 to January 2012. 

Yoon said the results of the study are important because they suggest that cigarette use during adolescence is an issue that reveals high-risk groups more likely to smoke based on past experiences with abuse and maltreatment.

“The impact or implication of this study is again telling us — telling the society — that adolescent cigarette smoking is a serious public health concern, and child abuse and neglect is another serious public health concern, and we see a significant connection and link between these two serious public health concerns,” Yoon said.

Yoon said the study was funded by a grant she received two years ago from the Institute for Population Research at Ohio State, which receives its funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Yoon said it was a challenge getting the paper published since it had originally been rejected by multiple journals; committees believed a study looking solely at cigarette use was not relevant, given the more “hard drugs” that teenagers use today. 

“We had to came up with really clear rationale and justification for specifically focusing on cigarette smoking,” Yoon said. 

Dillard said working with data they did not collect themselves presented another set of challenges. 

While it provided us with information for a large amount of children from across the country, we had no control over the measures selected to capture cigarette use habits. This had an impact on our ability to understand the nuances of smoking habits, and also limited us from considering other ways that adolescents use tobacco (e.g., vaping, chew, e-cigarettes),” Dillard said.

Yoon said the relationship between maltreatment and smoking warrants action. 

“There is an immediate and critical need for us to really jump in and address these two highly correlated, significant public health concerns in the United States,” Yoon said.