A total of 11% of young women (18–23 years) surveyed in 1996 reported being occasional smokers, equating to 39% of all smokers at the baseline survey. This proportion is higher than those found among general adult groups (10–18%) in other studies of occasional smoking,3,5,7,9
but lower than that found among adolescents (45%).3
In our study, 29% of baseline occasional smokers changed to daily smoking by survey 2 (when they were aged 22–27 years), and almost two‐thirds of these daily smokers continued smoking daily at survey 3 (aged 25–30 years). There was little escalation in tobacco use between surveys 2 and 3, with only 5% of baseline occasional smokers becoming daily smokers. The majority (61%) of those who were daily smokers at survey 3 reported daily smoking before the baseline survey. Their occasional smoking reported at survey 1 was likely to have been a phase of reduced smoking, rather than a progression towards daily smoking.
Occasional smoking as a long‐term behaviour pattern was also evident, with about 27% of baseline occasional smokers reporting non‐daily smoking at survey 2. By survey 3, 12% of these women maintained non‐daily smoking and 10% returned to non‐daily smoking at survey 3 after daily or non‐smoking at survey 2. Less than half (44%) of baseline occasional smokers stopped smoking at survey 2 and more than one‐third (36%) remained non‐smokers at both surveys 2 and 3. A further 19% stopped smoking at survey 3 after non‐daily or daily smoking at survey 2. Our study and others3,7,9
highlight the instability in tobacco use among occasional smokers. We found that one‐third of baseline occasional smokers fluctuated between daily, non‐daily and non‐smoking between surveys 2 and 3. We can only report the net change in smoking status at each follow‐up period (which does not capture the fluctuations in smoking patterns that may have occurred between survey times). Schofield et al3
showed frequent movement between smoking categories among younger occasional smokers over shorter follow‐up periods (3, 9 and 15 months after leaving high school).
The transition period to young adulthood is clearly an opportune time for interventions to prevent the escalation to daily smoking and to promote smoking cessation. We found that young women who were most susceptible to progressing to daily smoking had intermediate levels of education. These educational qualifications may place young women in occupational groups (eg, hairdresser, clerical and administrative worker, or sales assistant) that have higher smoking rates than the wider population.26,27
A recent study of young, non‐professional Australian workers found that 50% were current smokers, with smoking rates ranging from 38% among those working in retail or fast food outlets to 71% among hairdressers.26
Marriage and parenthood modify smoking behaviour.28
In the multivariate analysis, marriage was statistically significantly associated with not smoking at both time points, whereas the relationship between not smoking and becoming a parent was evident only for surveys 1 and 2. This may be because of a strong association between parenthood and marriage. The relationship between marriage and quitting smoking has been related in previous studies to the development of a more responsible concern with lifestyle and health29
and to an increased personal commitment to a spouse, as well as to preparation for parenthood.30
Qualitative research on life transitions and young women's smoking behaviour also suggests that around their mid‐20s, young women become more concerned about the addictive nature of cigarettes and their capacity to quit, as they consider their future health and plans for having children.31
Public communication strategies should take into account the influence of life‐stage changes such as marriage: a commitment to a partner may include a commitment to one's health and to future family health.
There are well‐known associations between tobacco, alcohol and illicit drug use: the use of one or more of these substances is associated with subsequent use of the others.32,33
In our study, current alcohol consumption was significantly associated with non‐daily smoking only; however, recent use of illicit drugs was associated with both daily and non‐daily smoking, with the strength of this association being greater for non‐daily smokers. Use of illicit drugs is generally greatest in young adulthood.1
The role of alcohol and illicit drug use in becoming a daily smoker or remaining a non‐daily smoker may be associated with the social context of cigarette smoking.34
Young adulthood is a stage of life that includes going out with friends, drinking and experimenting with drugs in settings such as private parties, raves, pubs and clubs.34
Young women regard smoking as a normative behaviour in these social settings, and as a means to meet and bond with others.31,35
Some only smoke in these circumstances, regarding themselves as “social smokers”.35
These young women may quit smoking as they mature out of this “single, partying” stage of life towards marriage and parenthood.30
The current legislative climate in several developed countries, of implementing smoke‐free policies in hospitality venues, may help to promote cessation among these socially mediated, occasional smokers.36,37
However, this may not be the case for some young women who may be susceptible to nicotine dependence.38,39
Although a history of previous daily smoking provides an explanation for the change to daily smoking among some baseline occasional smokers, in our study, lifestyle and life‐stage factors were also strongly associated with daily and non‐daily smoking. By contrast, the psychosocial factors considered (stress and depression) were not consistently associated with smoking among occasional smokers. Other studies have reported associations of stress and depression with smoking,40,41
and young women themselves cite stress as a reason for taking up and maintaining smoking.31