As reported by international bodies, tobacco use is currently one of the greatest public health problems [1
]. According to a recent study [2
], the rate of smoking remains high among adolescents and, in recent years, the number of new smokers among the youth that are not yet of age (11–15 years) has increased. Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death and the most prominent modifiable risk factor for several diseases. Despite its harmful nature, it is a very appealing habit for young people, who are particularly vulnerable to nicotine addiction and the adverse effects of tobacco [3
]. According to data from the latest Spanish Survey on Drug Use among Secondary Students [4
], tobacco is the second most widely used drug among adolescents aged 14 to 18 after alcohol. Forty-one percent said they had smoked at some point, 27% in the last month, and of these, about one third (9.8%) were daily users. Likewise, the average age of onset is around 14 years, with comparable levels of use among men and women, and increasing progressively with age.
Adolescence is a complex developmental stage in which changes that promote the transition from childhood to adulthood occur in the physical, psychological, and social spheres [5
]. This makes young people particularly vulnerable to certain risk behaviors such as drug use [6
]. Prevalence studies show that tobacco use begins early, at the ages of 12 and 13 [7
]. Thus, many smokers begin their addiction in adolescence [8
], which makes understanding risk and protective factors at this stage of life vitally important. Longitudinal research has emphasized smoking among peers as one of the major risks of adolescent use [9
]. Similarly, numerous studies have pointed out the relationship between the frequency and quantity of tobacco use and the harmful effect on the physical health of adolescents [10
], depressive symptoms [11
], suicidal ideation [12
], and other addictive behaviors such as heavy alcohol consumption [13
], cannabis [14
], and gambling addiction [15
The literature has identified several risk factors for substance use among young people, including family, school, community, and social and personal factors [16
]. As for the latter, associations have been found between tobacco use, a lack of impulse control, and sensation-seeking [17
], alexithymia [18
], deficient emotional skills [19
]; maladaptive coping mechanisms [22
], neuroticism [23
], low self-esteem [24
], and low feelings of self-efficacy among others [25
]. Based on this, it can be concluded that the risk of tobacco and other substance use at an early age presents clear emotional consequences.
Of the protective factors for substance use, special attention should be paid to emotional intelligence (EI), the promotion of which at young ages may serve as a novel preventive measure [26
]. EI is regarded as a factor in promoting public health [30
] and preventing psychosocial maladjustment in adolescence [31
]. Research has shown that EI, understood as the ability to recognize, understand, and regulate one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between them and then use the information to guide thoughts and actions [35
], is a predictor of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal substance use mostly in adults and university students [36
]. However, it should be noted that very few studies have examined the association between trait and ability EI with respect to tobacco use in adolescents, which would provide new evidence to advance in the clinical and educational field.
Since the concept of EI was initially formulated, growing interest in the field has led to numerous evaluation methods [38
]. Currently, two EI constructs can be identified based on the method of measurement used, with the literature being compiled independently [39
]. First, the trait EI refers to the self-perception of a series of emotional aptitudes evaluated via self-reports pertaining to the field of personality. Second, the ability EI references the cognitive capacity to correctly respond to various emotional tasks through peak performance tests. Although self-report measures of EI rely on the subject’s perception of their own emotional abilities, the model proposed by Mayer and Salovey [35
] stresses the importance of using maximum performance measures to assess the real ability of the person, thus following the traditional methodology used to measure cognitive intelligences [40
Among the studies that have evaluated the relationship of tobacco use and the trait EI, one study found that those college students who were heavier smokers presented low levels of the emotional repair component and began smoking at a younger age [42
]. Results from other research with adolescents showed that those with a higher perceived ability to repair their negative emotions smoked less [7
]. On the other hand, excessive attention to emotional states was associated with increased use [43
]. The authors concluded that greater attentiveness to feelings together with an inability to understand and regulate emotions may lead to increased ruminative thinking and thus facilitate increased use. In another study [44
], conducted with 16–65-year-olds, the authors concluded that non-regular smokers had greater clarity of emotion and a greater ability to repair negative emotional states than regular smokers. Although the literature has supported a link between higher levels of EI, superior physical and mental health, and reduced tobacco use in adults [45
], the idea that access to addictive substances is more difficult for adolescents has received some support [47
], and, therefore, few studies have focused on this age range.
On the other hand, with regard to studies that evaluated EI as an ability using maximum performance tests, [7
] employed an emotional perception performance task and found that adolescents with a greater ability to perceive the emotions of others reported lower use of this substance. Likewise, [48
] found negative associations between total EI and the ability to perceive and understand emotions with respect to the intensity of tobacco use and earlier initiation among adolescents [48
]. In a second study by this group, higher EI was associated with greater perception of negative social consequences associated with tobacco use (e.g., “cigarette smoking is a way of losing non-smoking friends”), increased efficiency in rejecting the offer of cigarettes by peers, and a lesser intention to smoke in the coming year [49
Given that the literature warns that tobacco use begins at an early age [7
], and most studies have been conducted on adults and university students, additional empirical evidence on the role of EI in adolescent tobacco use may be especially useful in orienting new preventive actions. In this sense, given that the abilities included in EI can be learned and improved by avoiding health-risk behaviors [41
], we consider that this study could guide the design of clinical and educational interventions aimed at preventing the appearance of problems involving psychosocial imbalance in adolescence such as drug use, in particular tobacco. Likewise, many studies have only used EI self-reporting measures and virtually none have applied maximum performance tests, which would permit a greater understanding of its role in this issue. According to the previous literature and given that ESTUDES [4
], uses a limited sampling frame that includes only adolescents from 14 to 18 years of age, this research adds empirical data regarding the prevalence of consumption among the youngest (12–13 years). Given current concerns regarding the adverse effects of tobacco during vulnerable periods such as adolescence, this paper aims to analyze the relationship between the dimensions of trait EI and ability across various variables of use in students aged 12 to 16 years. Based on the results of previous studies, the following hypothesis has been described:
Hypothesis 1 (H1).
The dimensions of the trait and ability EI will be inversely and significantly correlated with the tobacco use dependent variables (“having tried tobacco before”; “number of days of tobacco use in the last year”; “number of cigarettes smoked per week”; “tobacco use when offered by friends”), with the exception of the factor of attention to one’s own emotions of the trait EI, which will be positively and significantly correlated with the same.
Hypothesis 2 (H2).
After controlling for sex and age, the dimensions of the trait and ability EI will be inversely and significantly associated with the tobacco-use dependent variables with the exception of the factor of attention to one’s own emotions of the trait EI, which will be positively and significantly associated with the same.
Despite the importance of facilitation and regulation abilities in promoting proper cognitive processing and regulating emotions, these factors were not explanatory for tobacco use variables, although they had a significant inverse correlation with certain variables. The data obtained in this research support the idea that lower levels of EI are related to a higher probability and frequency of tobacco use, as well as a higher quantity and use when offered by friends. Therefore, it could be concluded that those adolescents with a greater capacity to perceive emotions and attend to theirs in a moderate way, and who are capable of understanding and repairing their own negative emotional states, are less likely to initiate and increase tobacco use.
The results of this research highlight the importance of developing these abilities through drug prevention programs as a protective factor against early onset and eventual substance abuse. We therefore consider that preventive interventions could increase effectiveness if they take into account the building of abilities needed to perceive, understand, and regulate emotions, as well as the interpersonal abilities needed to withstand pressure from friends when it comes to tobacco use. Finally, the results obtained in this study provide a foundation for the development of future lines of research that can further advance the understanding of the variables involved in adolescent tobacco use. The results obtained are aligned with scientific advances that underline the need to consider the training of social and emotional skills in various contexts of the preventive field, such as the family, educational, work, and community [1
]. In addition, although the risk factors associated with consumption are numerous and many of them cannot be modified, the emotional skills included in this study can be learned and improved acting as protective factors against drug consumption in adolescents [59
]. For all these reasons, we consider that the findings of this research offer empirical support to prevention programs focused on the promotion of personal resources to improve these skills.
We believe that further studies should validate the results obtained here. Causal inferences from this research should be treated with caution due to its cross-sectional design. It would therefore be of interest for longitudinal studies with heterogeneous samples to further corroborate these results. Similarly, it would be interesting to study the directionality between EI and tobacco use, as well as the effect that other variables such as attitudes towards smoking and coping strategies have at these ages. Despite these limitations, this research provides additional information on the relationship between EI and tobacco use in the earliest stage of adolescence (12–16 years), of which very little has been studied. Also, given that research combining the assessment of the constructs of trait EI and ability EI is difficult to find, this study provides a more complete understanding of their role in tobacco use.