Physician tobacco screening and advice to quit among U.S. adolescents – National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 2013
© The Author(s). 2017
Received: 4 June 2016
Accepted: 22 December 2016
Published: 10 January 2017
Initiating tobacco use in adolescence increases the risk of nicotine dependence and continued smoking. Physician screening for tobacco use increases the odds of physicians intervening with patients who smoke; However, without appropriate follow-through by the physician, screening for tobacco use is not enough to significantly increase cessation rates. Given the critical phase of development adolescence poses in tobacco use and evidence that physician intervention improves adult cessation efforts, we sought to examine physician tobacco use screening and advice to quit among adolescents (12–17 years).
Using data from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), we examined the prevalence and correlates of tobacco use screening in adolescent respondents who reported visiting their physician within the past year (N = 12,798). Multivariable logistic regression analyses explored the relationship between tobacco use screening and physician advice to quit in a sub-set of the sample who reported on physician advice to quit (n = 1,868), controlling for sociodemographics, cigarette use, and substance use and screening.
Only 49% of adolescents who visited a physician within the past year reported being screened for tobacco use. Adolescents who were screened by their physician were predominantly female (56.6%), White (60.1%), in late adolescence (83.0%), and covered by private health insurance (63.8%). Screening for tobacco use was highly correlated with physician advice to quit smoking, controlling for sociodemographic characteristics and cigarette use; this relationship was attenuated, but remained significant, after screening for alcohol and marijuana were added to the model. Hispanic adolescents were significantly less likely to receive physician advice to quit in all multivariable models.
Our findings suggest missed opportunities for youth tobacco use prevention and cessation efforts in the clinical setting. Further research is needed to better facilitate an open dialogue on tobacco use between physicians and their adolescent patients.
Adolescence marks a developmental period in which there are increases in experimentation  and regular use of tobacco . An estimated 5,700 people per day initiated smoking cigarettes in 2013 . Adolescents (12–17 years) accounted for half of all initiates in that year, and 7.8% of adolescents reported past 30-day tobacco product use . Initiating tobacco use in adolescence increases the risk of nicotine dependence and continued smoking [4–7]. Thus, tobacco prevention and cessation interventions may have a greater impact in adolescence than in adulthood when risk behaviors are more established. However, the proportion of past-year quit attempts among adolescent smokers decreased from 57.4% in 2001 to 48% in 2013  suggesting that tobacco cessation efforts are not effectively reaching adolescent smokers.
Systematic reviews and meta-analyses of tobacco cessation interventions show that the more successful interventions consist of physicians and/or non-physicians engaged in one-on-one interactions as a means of tailoring efforts to the specific cessation needs of the smoker [9–11]. This individualized approach starts with identifying an individual’s smoking status. Screening patients for tobacco use allows physicians to identify the appropriate intervention - promoting quitting among current smokers, preventing relapse in former smokers, or encouraging never smokers to continue abstinence .
Physician screening for tobacco use increases the odds three-fold of physicians intervening with patients who smoke; However, without appropriate follow through by the physician, screening for tobacco use is not enough to significantly increase cessation rates . The 2008 update to the U.S. Public Health Service Clinical Practice Guideline for Treating Tobacco Use and Dependence found it essential that physicians identify the tobacco use status of patients and intervene with all tobacco users identified . Even brief physician advice lasting less than 3 min has resulted in a significant increase in quit rates among adult smokers compared to those who received no advice [12, 13].
Despite evidence supporting physician-based tobacco prevention and cessation interventions in adolescents, data from the 2011 National Youth Tobacco Survey shows only 20.8% of middle and high school students who visited a physician in the past 12 months were both screened for tobacco use and advised to quit . Evidence suggests the rates of physician screening and advice to quit may differ among particular racial and ethnic groups. Data from the Memphis Health Project, a longitudinal study of smoking in adolescents in the mid-South, found that in a primarily African American sample of 11th graders (82.9%), 28.9% of adolescents sampled were both screened for tobacco use and advised to quit by a physician .
To our knowledge, there is no recent data available on physician screening for tobacco use and advice to quit in a nationally representative sample of adolescents. Given the critical phase of development adolescence poses in tobacco use, and evidence that face-to-face interventions can improve smoking outcomes, this study used data from a recent national survey to examine physician tobacco use screening and advice to quit among adolescents who reported visiting a physician in the past 12 months.
Subjects and data collection
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) is the primary source for population estimates of substance use and health-related behaviors among the U.S. general population. A detailed description of the survey methodology is reported elsewhere . Briefly, the NSDUH uses a state-based design with an independent, multistage area probability sample within each state and the District of Columbia to produce a nationally representative sample of 67,838 individuals aged 12 years or older. Data from the 2013 NSDUH were used to examine the prevalence and correlates of tobacco use screening in adolescent respondents (ages 12–17) who reported visiting their physician in the past year (N = 13,034). For the purpose of these analyses, only those who responded to questions about physician screening were included, reducing the sample to 12,798. A sub-set of this sample who responded to questions about both physician screening and advice to quit were used to examine the relationship between physician tobacco use screening and physician provided advice to quit (n = 1,868).
Participants reported sex, age, race/ethnicity, and current school enrollment. Age was dichotomized as 12–13 years and 14–17 years to examine differences between early and late adolescence. Research has shown that an individual’s income and health insurance coverage impact access to care and the quality of care received [16, 17]. To examine how these factors may affect physician screening and advice to quit, participants’ parents served as proxies to collect information related to income (total family income, receipt of public assistance, receipt of food stamps) and health insurance.
Tobacco and substance use
Participants were classified in three mutually-exclusive groups: never cigarette users, ever cigarette users (but not in the past 30 days), or past 30-day cigarette users. Never cigarette users were defined as those who did not report having ever smoked part or all of a cigarette. Ever cigarette users were defined as those who reported having ever smoked part or all of a cigarette, but not in the past 30-days. Past 30-day cigarette use was defined as having smoked part or all of a cigarette on at least one day in the past 30 days. Additional substance use included past 30-day alcohol and marijuana use, which were defined as having any alcohol or marijuana on at least one day in the past 30 days, respectively.
Participants were asked one question in regards to physician screening for tobacco use: “During the past 12 months, did any doctor or other health care professional ask, either in person or on a form, if you use tobacco?” Participants who refused to respond or responded “don’t know” were excluded from analysis (n = 236). As it is recommended that physicians screen for all substance use and publicly available screening tools address multiple substances in the same screener , screening for alcohol and drug use were also examined. Participants were asked the same question as it relates to alcohol use and drug use.
Physician advice to quit
The main outcome considered was whether or not adolescents received advice to quit from their physician. Advice to quit was assessed with the following question: “During the past 12 months, did any doctor or other health care professional advise you to quit smoking cigarettes or quit using any other tobacco products?”.
All analyses were performed using Stata SE13.1 (StataCorp, 2013) and post-stratification weights were used to offset any non-response or non-coverage bias and produce nationally representative estimates. Missing data were handled with listwise deletion per Stata’s survey procedures. Bivariate analyses examined the prevalence of physician screening for tobacco use by sociodemographic characteristics, cigarette use, alcohol use, marijuana use, and screening for alcohol and marijuana use. Four nested multivariable logistic regression analyses explored the relationship between tobacco use screening and physician advice to quit, controlling for sociodemographic characteristics in Model A, followed by the addition of cigarette use in Model B, alcohol use and screening in Model C, and marijuana use and screening in Model D.
Descriptive statistics of adolescents by physician tobacco use screening; NSDUH 2013 (n = 12,798)
Physician Screened for Tobacco Use
n = 6324 (49.4%)
n = 6474 (50.6%)
Sex, n (%)
Age, n (%)
Race/Ethnicity, n (%)
Enrolled in School, n (%)
Total Family Income, n (%)
Less than $20,000
$75,000 or more
Receives Public Assistance, n (%)
Receives Food Stamps, n (%)
Private Health Coverage, n (%)
Ever Use, No Current Use
Current Use (Past 30-Day)
Alcohol, n (%)
Past 30-Day Use
Screened for Use
Marijuana, n (%)
Past 30-Day Use
Screened for Use
Overall, the majority of adolescents reported never using cigarettes (84.2%). Approximately 10% of adolescents had ever used a cigarette, with 5.6% reporting past 30-day cigarette use. Past 30-day alcohol use (11.5%) was more common than past 30-day marijuana use (6.9%) among this sample of adolescents.
Physician screening for tobacco use
Fewer than half of adolescents who visited a physician in the past 12 months were screened for tobacco use (49.4%; Table 1). Adolescents who were screened for tobacco use by their physician were more likely to be female (56.6%), non-Hispanic White (60.1%), in late adolescence (83.0%), and covered by private health insurance (63.8%; all p values < .001). Adolescents who were screened for tobacco use were also more likely to be screened for alcohol use and drug use (82.6 and 68.3%, respectively; p values < .001).
Physician advice to quit
Physician interaction by adolescent’s smoking status; NSDUH 2013 (n = 1,868)
Cigarette Use, n (%)
Ever Use, Not Past 30 -Day
Past 30-Day Use
Neither Screened nor Advised
Screened and Advised
Multivariable logistic regression models of physician advice to quit smoking among adolescents; NSDUH 2013 (n = 1,886)
Screened for Tobacco
12.60 (7.98, 19.88)
12.73 (8.15, 19.89)
7.12 (3.98, 12.74)
6.01 (3.35, 10.79)
1.32 (.94, 1.86)
1.50 (1.07, 2.12)
1.67 (1.19, 2.36)
1.60 (1.13, 2.26)
.97 (.41, 2.32)
.90 (.38, 2.15)
.79 (.34, 1.84)
.78 (.35, 1.70)
Non-Hispanic White (ref)
.74 (.39, 1.38)
.81 (.43, 1.53)
1.00 (.53, 1.90)
.95 (.50, 1.79)
.49 (.31, .76)
.48 (.30, .76)
.51 (.31, .82)
.47 (.28, .78)
.28 (.03, 2.27)
.24 (.03, 1.98)
.28 (.03, 2.37)
.31 (.04, 2.35)
.84 (.50, 1.41)
.88 (.52, 1.50)
.79 (.44, 1.41)
.75 (.40, 1.41)
Less than $20,000
.97 (.67, 1.40)
.98 (.67, 1.42)
.99 (.67, 1.47)
1.05 (.69, 1.57)
.93 (.55, 1.55)
.91 (.53, 1.56)
1.00 (.58, 1.72)
1.03 (.60, 1.77)
$75,000 or More
1.01 (.63, 1.59)
1.06 (.65, 1.70)
1.17 (.70, 1.96)
1.21 (.73, 2.02)
Receive Public Assistance
1.25 (.48, 3.31)
1.26 (.48, 3.31)
1.41 (.56, 3.51)
1.43 (.59, 3.46)
Receive Food Stamps
1.31 (.83, 2.07)
1.30 (.82, 2.05)
1.34 (.84, 2.13)
1.28 (.81, 2.04)
Private Insurance Coverage
.65 (.41, 1.02)
.68 (.41, 1.12)
.69 (.42, 1.14)
.67 (.41, 1.82)
Never Use (ref)
Ever Use, Not Past 30-Day
1.57 (.89, 2.77)
1.71 (.97, 3.01)
1.82 (1.02, 3.23)
Past 30-Day Use
2.95 (1.73, 5.03)
3.43 (2.01, 5.85)
3.65 (2.11, 6.30)
Past 30-Day Alcohol Use
.98 (.66, 1.45)
.89 (.60, 1.31)
Screened for Alcohol
2.44 (1.51, 3.97)
1.48 (.82, 2.67)
Past 30-Day Marijuana Use
1.18 (.85, 1.63)
Screened for Drugs
2.40 (1.41, 4.08)
In multivariable models, having been screened for tobacco use was correlated with a more than 12-fold higher odds of physician advice to quit, controlling for sociodemographics (Model A: OR = 12.60, 95% CI 7.98, 19.88 Table 3) and sociodemographics and cigarette use (Model B: OR = 12.73, 95% CI 8.15, 19.89). In the latter model, Hispanic ethnicity was correlated with significantly lower odds of physician advice to quit smoking (OR = .48, 95% CI .30, .76). Being male (OR = 1.50, 95% CI 1.07, 2.12) and past 30-day cigarette use (OR = 2.95, 95% CI 1.73, 5.03) was correlated with a significantly greater odds of physician advice to quit smoking in this sample.
The relationship between physician tobacco screening and advice to quit was attenuated, but remained strong and significant when alcohol use and screening were added in Model C (OR = 7.12, 95% CI 3.98, 12.74) and marijuana use and drug screening were added in Model D (OR = 6.01, 95% CI 3.35, 10.79). In the final model adjusting for physician screening for tobacco, alcohol, and drug use, physician screening for tobacco use was the strongest correlate of receiving physician advice to quit smoking (OR 6.01; CI 3.35–10.79). In all four models, Hispanic adolescents were significantly less likely to receive advice to quit from their physician compared to non-Hispanic White adolescents.
Although 74% of adolescents sampled in the NSDUH reported visiting a physician in the past year, only 49% were screened for tobacco use by their physician, resulting in an estimated 36% of adolescents being screened for tobacco use at the population level. Only 14.2% of ever and 26.3% of past 30-day cigarette users were screened for and received advice to quit tobacco from their physician. Physician screening for tobacco use was highly correlated with physician advice to quit smoking, after controlling for sociodemographic characteristics, cigarette use, and screening for alcohol use.
The screening and advising rates reported by adolescents in this national study are well below published clinician reports. In a national survey of US primary care physicians, Tong et al. found tobacco screening and advising rates of 97.7% and 94.9%, respectively . Some may argue that this discrepancy is due in part to adolescent recall, but evidence indicates that adolescent recall is more reliable than clinician reports [20, 21]. Another potential contributor to the lower rates is the large non-White population (44.6%) in the study sample. Similar to the disparities documented in adult populations [15, 22–24], we observed lower rates of screening and counseling among non-White adolescents, particularly Hispanic adolescents.
Lower screening rates have been attributed to both individual and institutional factors. Physicians report that brief face-to-face screening and counseling is ineffective, unpleasant, and that they are ill-prepared for such discussions [19, 25, 26]. Additional barriers have been noted when working with smokers in underserved communities including: lack of time, patient unreadiness to change, and inadequate resources for themselves and their patients . Rather than physician-focused strategies to overcome these barriers, arguments have been made for system-level change as a means of fully integrating tobacco prevention and cessation in healthcare delivery . Under system-level recommendations, health care systems would provide physicians with regular trainings, ensure national and local resources are made available to physicians and their patients, and provide feedback to physicians about their tobacco dependence treatment practices .
Certain limitations should be considered when interpreting study results. We were unable to make any causal determinations due to the cross-sectional design of the NSDUH, particularly as it pertains to the diminished screening rates. Cigarette use was based on the respondent’s status at the time of the survey and may not accurately reflect their cigarette use status at their last physician visit. Additionally, the self-reported nature of NSDUH may have resulted in over and under-reporting of behaviors.
Our findings demonstrate low rates of physician tobacco screening among adolescents and an inadequate provision of advice to quit to adolescent smokers, despite a strong relationship between screening and advice to quit. The discrepancy between screening and advising rates reported by adolescents in this national study and in published clinician reports underlines the need for more systematic monitoring and assessment of physician screening and counseling. Regression analyses revealed that use of and screening for other substances attenuated the relationship between screening for tobacco use and advice to quit. Additional research is needed to identify the best practice for screening for multiple substances. Our findings also highlight racial/ethnic disparities in physician screening and advice to quit, particularly among Hispanic adolescents, not previously reported in the adolescent literature. This underscores the need for additional resources specific to these racial/ethnic groups to help facilitate the discussion on tobacco use. Given the critical phase of development adolescence poses in tobacco use and the potential benefit of physician screening and advice to quit during adolescence, further research is needed to enable physicians to have an open dialogue on tobacco use with their adolescent patients.
At the time of the study, Sabrina L. Smiley was a Scholar with the HIV/AIDS, Substance Abuse, and Trauma Training Program (HA-STTP), at the University of California, Los Angeles; supported through an award from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (R25 DA035692).
This study was funded by Truth Initiative. The study sponsor did not have any role in the study design; collection, analysis, and interpretation of data; writing the report; and the decision to submit the report for publication.
Availability of data and materials
The dataset supporting the conclusions of this article is available through the National Addiction & HIV Data Archive Program, http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/icpsrweb/NAHDAP/studies/35509.
LC developed the study, conducted the data analyses, and drafted the manuscript. SS, RAM, ALG, ACV provided guidance throughout the process and critical revisions on the manuscript drafts. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.
The authors declare that they have no competing interests.
Consent for publication
Ethics approval and consent to participate
This study was not considered human subjects research under the federal Common Rule, 45 CFR Part 46 since the dataset was published and publicly available.
Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated.
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