New Study Shows Children of Smokers Tend to be More Impulsive

November 3, 2008

Adolescents may have more in common with their smoking parents than previously thought, a new study conducted by researchers at Nationwide Children’s Hospital finds. These adolescents may also share a tendency to act impulsively, a trait that could be linked to a decision to become a smoker. The study, slated for print publication in the January issue of Drug and Alcohol Dependence and currently available online at ScienceDirect, may help identify behavioral risk factors for adolescent smoking – risk factors that could increase some teens’ chance of addiction even before they pick up their first cigarette 

Brady Reynolds, PhD, the study’s lead author and principal investigator with the Center for Biobehavioral Health of The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, has focused much of his work on the connection between smoking and impulsivity, or more specifically, delay discounting. Delay discounting describes a person’s preference for a smaller, more immediate reward over a larger reward that is delayed for a period of time. It also has been shown to play an important role in the behavior of cigarette smoking.

Reynolds’ recent manuscript found that cigarette smoking mothers chose the immediate reward (discounted) significantly more than nonsmoking mothers. Similarly, children of mothers who smoked discounted significantly more than children of nonsmokers. These results parallel findings between adult addicted and non-addicted populations. 

“Based on our findings, campaigns to prevent adolescents from smoking are likely to be more effective if they emphasize short-term consequences to smoking, as opposed to long-term consequences,” said Reynolds, also a member of the faculty at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. “This strategy would seem to be especially important for those adolescents most at risk of nicotine addiction.” 

The research did not address whether or not discounting differences are due to genetic factors, home environmental factors related to cigarette smoking, or perhaps smoking during pregnancy. Regardless, it does identify a measurable tendency that could increase the chance of addiction for adolescents who are already at increased risk for smoking, before any substantial use of nicotine.

The study examined 60 participants in the central Ohio community and included half of the mothers who reported currently smoking, and the other half reported never smoking. All of the children (12-13-years-old) were nonsmokers.

“Our study is significant in that it indicates most adolescent smokers, or children at risk of smoking, respond to more immediate consequences when making choices,” said Reynolds. “Therefore, prevention programs that stress the long-term negative effects of smoking are going to be less effective for those adolescents most at risk of smoking. Also, cessation programs focused on long-term outcomes will likely be less effective for adolescent smokers attempting to quit.”

About Nationwide Children's Hospital

Named to the Top 10 Honor Roll on U.S. News & World Report’s 2019-20 list of “Best Children’s Hospitals,” Nationwide Children’s Hospital is one of America’s largest not-for-profit freestanding pediatric health care systems providing wellness, preventive, diagnostic, treatment and rehabilitative care for infants, children and adolescents, as well as adult patients with congenital disease. Nationwide Children’s has a staff of more than 13,000 providing state-of-the-art pediatric care during more than 1.5 million patient visits annually. As home to the Department of Pediatrics of The Ohio State University College of Medicine, Nationwide Children’s physicians train the next generation of pediatricians and pediatric specialists. The Abigail Wexner Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital is one of the Top 10 National Institutes of Health-funded freestanding pediatric research facilities. More information is available at