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Tara Overzat
May 17, 2011

Drinking & Smoking Affects Asian-American Teens, Too

Stereotypes run rampant in all societies, and while most stereotypes have a negative connotation, others have a positive one. One such stereotype is that of the “model minority” referring to a minority population in a country which appears to have high achievements in the worlds of education and business. In the US, this term is sometimes applied to the Asian-American population. Due to the success of some Asian-Americans, there is a pervasive mental image of young Asians in the US diligently studying and working hard to become doctors and engineers. This not only denies the individuality and identities of member of this group, but also tends to shield the problems that some of these individuals may be struggling with.

Contrary to the image of the perfect student maintaining straight A’s and taking advanced courses, many adolescent Asian-American students find themselves experimenting and using nicotine and alcohol like their European-American peers. In one study, acculturation was found to have an impact as to whether or not Asian-American teenagers smoked cigarettes (Unger, Cruz, Rohrbach, Ribisl, Baezconde-Garbanati, Chen, Trinidad, Johnson, 2000). The more acculturated to the US a participant was in this study, the more likely that participant actually smoked cigarettes. Unger et al.’s study showed that this was true even though higher-acculturated participants were more aware of the dangers of smoking than those who were less acculturated. It appeared that anti-smoking paraphernalia in English was well-understood by this group, but rejected in light of the fact that better English skills also led to easier procurement of cigarettes.

Likewise, higher levels of acculturation pointed towards Asian-American teens being more likely to engage in alcohol consumption (Hahm, Lahiff, & Guterman, 2003). Hahm et al.’s (2003) study found that Asian-American adolescents who were born in the US and spoke only English at home were three times more likely to consume alcohol than their less acculturated counterparts, defined as being foreign-born and speaking a language other than English at home. One theory for this disparity is that parents who keep alive their native language at home are more likely to be involved in their teens daily lives, which in turn discourages alcohol usage. Along these lines, Hahm et al. (2003) also found that Asian-American teens with high acculturation paired with medium or high parental attachment had lower levels of alcohol usage, on par with less acculturated Asian-American teens. As such, high acculturation may not be as strong a risk factor as previously thought; it appears it may only play a major role if it is paired with low parental attachment (Hahm et al., 2003).

So, if higher English ability and acculturation actually increases the chances of using alcohol and nicotine, but only when paired with less involved parents, this leads to the question of how best to deter Asian-American teens from these unhealthy habits. Getting the parents involved seems to be key. However, we then run into another potential problem — Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants may be less inclined to utilize mental health services (Abe-Kim, Takeuchi, Hong, Zane, Sue, Spencer, Appel, Nicdao, Alegria, 2007). Some alcohol and substance abuse is linked to individuals attempting to self-medicate mental health issues; as such, this reluctance to use mental health resources may in fact lead to an increased incidence of alcohol use on its own. Also, Asian-Americans may be less inclined to seek treatment for these substance abuse issues just as they would be disinclined to seek help for mental health issues.

It would appear the best solution would be continuing to de-stigmatize mental health counseling and substance abuse treatments programs. An important component of this would be allowing ourselves to look past the stereotypes, past the idea that a group of people is uniformly “perfect,” and towards understanding that, now and again, every individual could use a little help.

Abe-Kim, J., Takeuchi, D.T., Hong, S., Zane, N., Sue, S., Spencer, M.S., Appel, H., Nicdao, E., Alegria, M. (2007). Use of mental health-related services among immigrant and US-born Asian Americans: Results from the national Latino and Asian American study. American Journal of Public Health, 97(1), 91-98.
Unger, J.B., Cruz, T.B. Rohrbach, L.A., Ribisl, K.M., Baezconde-Garbanati, L., Chen, X, Trinidad, D.R., Johnson, C.A. (2000). English language use as a risk factor for smoking initiation among Hispanic and Asian American adolescents: Evidence for mediation by tobacco-related beliefs and social norms. Health Psychology, 19(5), 403-410.
Hahm, H.C., Lahiff, M., & Guterman, N.B. (2003). Acculturation and parental attachment in Asian-American and adolescents’ alcohol use. Journal of Adolescent Health, 33, 119-129.

Tara Overzat is a counselor-in-training at Mercer University in Atlanta. Her interests include multicultural issues and acculturation amongst college students.

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