Childhood self-control predicts smoking throughout life: Evidence from 21,000 cohort study participants

Michael Daly*, Mark Egan, Jody Quigley, Liam Delaney, Roy F. Baumeister

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


    Objective: Low self-control has been linked with smoking, yet it remains unclear whether childhood self-control underlies the emergence of lifetime smoking patterns. We examined the contribution of childhood self-control to early smoking initiation and smoking across adulthood. Methods: 21,132 participants were drawn from 2 nationally representative cohort studies; the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS) and the 1958 National Child Development Study (NCDS). Child self-control was teacher-rated at age 10 in the BCS and at ages 7 and 11 in the NCDS. Participants reported their smoking status and number of cigarettes smoked per day at 5 time-points in the BCS (ages 26-42) and 6 time-points in the NCDS (ages 23-55). Both studies controlled for socioeconomic background, cognitive ability, psychological distress, gender, and parental smoking; the NCDS also controlled for an extended set of background characteristics. Results: Early self-control made a substantial graded contribution to (not) smoking throughout life. In adjusted regression models, a 1-SD increase in self-control predicted a 6.9 percentage point lower probability of smoking in the BCS, and this was replicated in the NCDS (5.2 point reduced risk). Adolescent smoking explained over half of the association between self-control and adult smoking. Childhood self-control was positively related to smoking cessation and negatively related to smoking initiation, relapse to smoking, and the number of cigarettes smoked in adulthood. Conclusions: This study provides strong evidence that low childhood self-control predicts an increased risk of smoking throughout adulthood and points to adolescent smoking as a key pathway through which this may occur.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1254-1263
    Number of pages10
    JournalHealth Psychology
    Issue number11
    Publication statusPublished - 1 Nov 2016


    • Longitudinal research
    • Personality
    • Self-control
    • Smoking
    • Tobacco use


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