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Poor school grades and smoking: Is tobacco all to blame?

14 March 2022

Dr Suzi Gage contributes to the #Co90sDiscoveries series and tells us whether smoking cigarettes can influence how well a young person does at school.

Smoking has a long established record of causing harm, from physiological damage to mental ill health. Preventing these dangers from impacting future generations is a priority for UK health bodies, the government and schools. But while there is a link between teenage smoking and school grades, research involving our participants challenges the assumption that smoking is entirely to blame.

Cigarettes and cognition 

Observational studies, many of them conducted by University of Bristol researchers, show that people who do less well at school are more likely to take up smoking. However, prior to studies involving Children of the 90s data, it was less clear whether there is a causal link between smoking and young people’s cognitive abilities – the fact that they smoke does not necessarily mean they are less intelligent.

To investigate, researchers worked with 12,004 of our participants, who self-reported their smoking levels at age 15 and 16. Their cognitive ability and educational attainment were also tested at both ages.

To ensure the results would be robust, the study took into account factors such as the use of tobacco, alcohol or cannabis among the mothers of the participants during pregnancy, as well as maternal depression. The young people themselves were asked about their own history of moods and feelings, depression and drug use.

The bigger picture

Researchers found that those who smoked heavily at the age of 15 (more than 100 times in their lifetime to date) achieved lower grades in their GCSEs at age 16 than their non-smoking counterparts.

Data from other sources further indicated a link between smoking and a decrease in educational attainment and cognitive ability. However, the evidence was not sufficiently consistent to attribute poor school performance entirely to smoking.

Dr Suzi Gage, a psychologist and epidemiologist, and honorary lecturer at the University of Liverpool, led the study and speculates that there may be underlying behavioural factors that merit equal consideration:

“Might this association between smoking and lower educational attainment be due to other factors, such as truancy for example? Could it be that students who fail academically turn to smoking as a way of managing their negative feelings? It’s also plausible that the impulsive tendencies of teenagers could lead them to take up smoking and to do less well at school.”

Reducing harm and inequality

Whatever the degree of causation, the harm is clear, which leads Dr Gage to conclude that alongside further studies, policymakers and schools need to be actively involved in reducing or preventing smoking among teenagers.

Official guidance from the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) already encourages schools and colleges to take a proactive approach, for instance, by including accurate information in the curriculum about the dangers of smoking, alongside wider strategies on wellbeing.

Dr Gage adds: “Early interventions aimed at preventing smoking uptake are also worth considering, for example within the school environment, as these could support higher educational attainment and, ultimately, reduce the health and social inequality that derives from both smoking and low education.”


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