High obesity and smoking rates among Pacific Islanders: U-M study

September 25, 2012


Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Health Disparity & Health Equity Conference LogoANN ARBOR, Mich.—In the first study to detail the health of Pacific Islanders living in the U.S., University of Michigan researchers have found alarmingly high rates of obesity and smoking.  The preliminary findings are being presented today (August 24) at a conference in Los Angeles on health disparities among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders. (Download a PDF copy of the Pacific Islander Health Study Report – 2012 Preliminary Findings.)

“Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are the second fastest growing minority population in the U.S.,” says Sela Panapasa, a researcher at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR) and principal investigator of the Pacific Islander Health Study.  “But they are often under-represented in national surveys.”

“This is the first scientific study to assess the health, well-being and healthcare use of two sub-groups of this important population – Samoans and Tongans.  Our hope is that this will lead to the development of evidence-based interventions and policies to improve the health of these groups, and also serve as a model for similar studies of other sub-groups of this population.”

For the study, the research team interviewed a random sample of 239 California households in 2011 and 2012.  Half were Tongans living in the San Mateo area and half were Samoans living in the Los Angeles area.  Trained Samoan and Tongan interviewers collected information on a wide range of health conditions and health behaviors among adults and adolescents in the households.

Among the key preliminary findings:

  • Smoking rates among Pacific Islanders were three to four times higher than for other Californians, and more than twice as high as in the U.S. overall.  Approximately 46 percent of adults said they were current smokers, compared to 13 percent of California adults and 20 percent of U.S. adults.  Among Pacific Islander adolescents, 23 percent said they had tried smoking cigarettes, compared to just 3.5 percent of California teens.
  • More than half of Pacific Islander adolescents were overweight or obese based on their body mass index (BMI).  More than 80 percent of Pacific Islander adults had a BMI that indicated they were overweight or obese.
  • Pacific Islander adults were much less likely than other adults to see a dentist (47 percent compared to 86 percent of all Californians), and Pacific Islander women were less likely to have ever gotten a mammogram (53 percent compared to 73 percent of Californians).
  • Pacific Islander adults age 50 and older were much less likely to have ever had a colonoscopy (31 percent compared to 78 percent of Californians).  Only 24 percent of Pacific Islander women ever had a colonoscopy compared to 79 percent of California women.
  • Pacific Islander teens were much more likely than other adolescents to engage in risky behaviors such as drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana.  For example, nearly 47 percent of Tongan teens surveyed admitted to trying alcohol, compared to 36 percent of California teens overall.  And 25 percent of Pacific Islander teens had tried any drug, compared to just 14 percent of California teens overall.
Sela Panapasa

Sela Panapasa. Photo by U-M Photo Services

“By identifying the problem areas facing specific Pacific Islander communities, we can finally begin to chart a course to develop interventions that will help to reduce these health disparities and build healthy communities,” says Panapasa.

Among Panapasa’s collaborators on the study are U-M researchers James Jackson, Cleopatra Caldwell, Steven Heeringa, and James McNally, and David Williams from Harvard University.

Funding for the Pacific Islander Health Study was provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, the Asian Pacific Islander American Health Forum and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.

By Diane Swanbrow

Contact:  isrcommunications@umich.edu