UK Teens: Smoking Down, Cell Phones Up

L O N D O N, Nov. 3, 2000 -- British teens are smoking less, and talking more on cell phones. A couple of researchers think that may not be a coincidence.

The cell phone seems to compete with cigarettes as teen statements of fashion and rebellion, the scientists suggested in a letter published in the British Medical Journal.

Smoking Down, Cell Phones Up

While cigarette smoking among British 15-year-olds has dropped from 30 percent in 1996 to 23 percent in 1999, cell phone ownership had risen sharply over the same period to about 70 percent today, the scientists noted. “The mobile phone has a niche in teenagers’ lives that occupies the same place as cigarettes. It meets the same needs,” said one of the theory’s proponents, Clive Bates, director of Action on Smoking and Health in London. “Many kids can’t afford to do both.” “It sounds perfectly reasonable,” said Sir Richard Doll, the Oxford University professor who first confirmed the link between smoking and cancer. “We’ve just got to sit and watch it for longer, to see if it turns out to be real.”

Different in United States

However, American researchers say any link would probably not be mirrored in the United States. Saul Shiffman, professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh, is skeptical and believes the teen smokers and cell phone users are different types of adolescents. Smokers tend to be from lower income groups. Teen use of cell phones boomed in Britain with the spread of “pay-as-you-go” service, which require no credit checks, no parental approval and prevents running up huge bills. In the United States, cell phones are restricted to affluent teens and are much more expensive to use than conventional phones, said Joann Schellenbach, spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society.

Cigarettes Cheaper in United States

Cigarettes are cheaper in the United States, ranging from about $2.50 to $5 a pack. In Britain, a pack costs about $6. Smoking rates among U.S. high school students went down from 36.4 percent in 1997 to 34.8 percent in 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. About 25 percent of American teens were using cell phones by the end of 1999. By the end of this year, that is expected to increase to about 32 percent, said Knox Bricken, a wireless communications analyst at the Boston-based technology research firm The Yankee Group.

European Ads Promote Image

Mobile phone marketing in Europe promotes self-image and identity, which resembles cigarette advertising, the scientists said in their letter. The similarity in the advertising approaches caught the attention of the letter’s other author, Anne Charlton, a teen smoking expert and emeritus professor at the University of Manchester in England. “It’s all about the cool factor. It has the sort of approach that young people like — fashion is so important to this age group,” Charlton said. Owning a cell phone is not just about making calls, she said. It’s also a social prop. “I think it would be fun to look at it. We should always be alert to any factor that may increase or decrease youth smoking,” said Richard Hurt, director of the nicotine dependency unit at the Mayo Clinic. “They may have put their finger on the pulse of something here.”