WASHINGTON (CBS WASHINGTON) — A new study on a decades-old topic confirms that high school students are still pushed to smoke by peer pressure.

Despite decades of public health education among teens, popular teens tend to smoke and they induce other to take up the habit in an effort to fit in and be liked, according to the findings published online Sept. 6 in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

“Popularity is a strong predictor of smoking,” study author Thomas Valente, a professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine told hispanicallyspeakingnews.com “We haven’t done enough to make it cool not to smoke.”

The new research found that the most popular kids in seven predominantly Hispanic/Latino high schools in southern California were more likely to smoke cigarettes than the other students. It turns out that just thinking your friends are smokers—even if they aren’t—makes teens more likely to smoke.

And the more popular you are, the earlier teens are likely to start.

“It’s the popularity that’s a risk factor for smoking, and it’s very disturbing,” said Dr. Norman Edelman, chief medical officer for the American Lung Association and a professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University, in New York.

In the study, researchers asked 1,950 students in the ninth and 10th grades in 2006 and 2007 whether they had ever tried smoking, how often they smoked in the past month, how many students they thought smoked cigarettes and how they thought their close friends felt about smoking. They also asked the teens to identify their five best friends at school, a question designed to reveal the students’ social networks.

Popularity was measured by how often the students named someone as a friend. Those who thought their close friends smoked were more likely to be smokers, too, and those who smoked tended to form friendships with others who also smoked.

Popularity is probably a risk factor for other behaviors that can spread through schools, including binge drinking, risky sexual activities and some unhealthy eating behaviors, Valente told hispanicallyspeakingnews.com

Valente said the research shows that parents should be cautious of encouraging their kids to try to fit in.

“We always want our kids to be popular, but there’s a liability to that. By being popular you’re more aware of other things that are happening around you and you want to be sure to retain that popularity, which in and of itself is stressful.”

According to the American Lung Association, 68 percent of adult smokers started at age 18 or younger, and every day almost 3,900 children under 18 try their first cigarette. People who start smoking in adolescence are more likely to develop a severe addiction to nicotine than are those who start later.