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Barbie "buys" booze and butts

Where's the beer, beer, beer?" That's no fraternity chant. It's what a young child wanted to know while "shopping" for an evening with friends as part of a DMS study. The results, published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, suggest that preschoolers have already formed attitudes about smoking and drinking.

The study involved a role-playing scenario in which 120 children, aged two to six years, used Barbie and Ken dolls to purchase items from a toy grocery store in preparation for an evening with friends. The store was stocked with 70 different miniature products, including vegetables, meat, fruit, candy, milk, desserts, medicine, cereal, cigarettes, beer, and wine. About 62% of the children bought beer or wine, and 28% bought cigarettes.

Likely: "I didn't expect such a high percentage of children to buy alcohol or cigarettes," says study leader Madeline Dalton, Ph.D., a research associate professor of pediatrics at DMS and director of the Hood Center for Children and Families at Dartmouth. "Overall, I think it shows that very young children perceive alcohol and tobacco as appropriate and normal in social situations." Children were more likely to buy cigarettes if their parents smoked and more likely to buy alcohol if their parents drank more than once a month.

Most studies that examine early attitudes toward smoking and drinking are focused on older children. But this one, which was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, suggests that attitudes may form at a much younger age than previously thought.

"It's difficult to have an impact on middle school-age children with prevention programs if you are getting to them 10 years after they've already formed their attitudes," Dalton points out.

The study certainly suggests that alcohol and tobacco prevention efforts may need to be targeted toward younger children and their parents. But the results need to be confirmed by larger studies.

"I was surprised it received as much media coverage as it did," observes Dalton, "because it was a pilot study" with a relatively small number of research subjects. "But," she adds, "I think it opens a lot of doors for future research."

Laura Stephenson Carter

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