Teen Smoking Rates Drop Sharply

Higher cigarette taxes a big contributor to the trend

THURSDAY, May 16, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- Cigarette tax hikes have led to a sharp drop in teen smoking rates, federal health officials announced today.

The number of high school students who said they smoked fell more than 20 percent between 1997 and 2001, from roughly 36 percent of all students to 28 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Experts credit the decline to higher cigarette taxes, anti-smoking campaigns aimed at teens, and comprehensive state efforts to reduce rates of youth tobacco use. The average tax on a pack of cigarettes nationwide has increased to 84 cents, helping drive the average retail price of a pack up 70 percent between 1997 and 2001, officials said.

"Price has a very large effect on youth" smoking, particularly on teens considering the transition from occasional to habitual smoking, said Terry Pechacek, a tobacco researcher with the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention & Health Promotion and co-author of the report. Pechacek said teen smoking rates may also have been undercut by the sagging economy and its sapping of disposable income.

The government's goal is to have a $2-a-pack excise tax on cigarettes by the year 2010, when it wants to see no more than 16 percent of high school students smoking.

Matthew Myers, president of the National Center for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit group, called the report "a wake-up call."

"It demonstrates that we know how to reduce tobacco use. The question for the future is do we possess the political will to continue?" Myers said.

The key to the declining teen smoking rates, Myers added, is a combination of tobacco tax increases, and state and local efforts to promote an anti-smoking agenda aimed at youth.

While tobacco taxes have become an enticing source of revenue for state legislatures, Myers acknowledged that strapped budgets may threaten social programs like tobacco control.

"This progress will continue only if the real price of cigarettes continues to rise and states continue and expand their funding" of prevention programs, Myers said.

Myers noted that the 19 states with what he considers "meaningful" youth tobacco control programs had the most impressive decreases in teen smoking, but that such success in other states is far more limited.

The CDC report analyzed survey data between 1991 and 2001 for students in grades nine through 12. The share of teens who reported being current smokers rose from 27.5 percent in 1991 to 36.4 percent in 1997, then retreated to 28.5 percent in 2001. The proportion of frequent smokers -- defined as smoking at least two packs of cigarettes a month -- was 12.7 percent in 1991, peaked at nearly 17 percent in 1999, then fell to 13.8 percent in 2001.

The number of students who said they'd ever smoked also fell, from 70.4 percent in 1999 to about 64 percent in 2001, officials said.

Smoking rates have been dropping since the late 1990s for both sexes and among various racial and ethnic groups. White and Hispanic students are more likely than their black counterparts to use tobacco.

The report said the increase in teen smoking during the mid-1990s may have been the consequence of heavier marketing by tobacco companies and the prominence of smoking in popular culture, such as films.

What To Do: For more on youth smoking, try the National Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Terry Pechacek, Ph.D., National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention & Health Promotion, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Matthew Myers, president, National Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Washington, D.C.; May 17, 2002, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta
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