THURSDAY, March 8, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- More than 3.6 million children and teens in the United States smoke, according to a Surgeon General's report released Thursday that calls on the nation to curb youth smoking.
"Today, all over America, there are middle-schoolers developing deadly tobacco addictions before they can even drive a car," said Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), during a morning press conference.
More than 600,000 middle school students and more than 3 million high school students smoke. And three out of four teen smokers will continue to smoke into adulthood, the surgeon general's report warned.
Dr. Regina Benjamin, the Surgeon General, said "the report challenges us to end the epidemic of smoking among young people.
"Cigarettes are designed for addiction," she explained at the press conference. Added ingredients such as sugar, flavoring and moisteners make them even more addictive because they remove the harshness of tobacco. In addition, additives like ammonia make it easier for nicotine to get into the brain, she said.
The report -- the first since 1994 to focus on young smokers -- blames tobacco companies, specifically tobacco marketing, for the onset of adolescent smoking, noting that tobacco companies, despite claims to the contrary, continue to direct their ads at children.
Dr. Howard Koh, assistant secretary for health at HHS, said it is no accident that "too many of our children are addicted and too many cannot quit and too many go on to die far to young."
Koh said tobacco companies spend more than $1 million dollars an hour -- some $27 million a day -- on marketing and promoting their products in ways that make smoking look acceptable. These messages are particularly prominent on the Internet, in movies and video games, he said.
"The tobacco industry says its intent is only to promote brand choices among smokers, but there is a difference between stated intent and documented impact. Because regardless of intent the impact of tobacco marketing is to encourage underage youth," he said.
According to the report, tobacco is the leading cause of preventable and premature death in the country, killing more than 1,200 Americans every day. For everyone who dies from tobacco-related causes, two new smokers under age 26 replace them, the report said.
Almost 90 percent of these new smokers smoke their first cigarette by the time they are 18, the report noted.
"From 1997 to 2003 youth smoking fell rapidly, but since that time the rate of decline has slowed," Koh said. "In fact, there would be 3 million smokers today if we as a society had sustained the declines seen between 1997 and 2003."
Many teens are also using other tobacco products and using several tobacco products together, he said.
The report also provides more data on the addictiveness of cigarettes. The younger people are when they start smoking, "the more likely they are to become addicted and the more heavily addicted they will become," it said.
Moreover, starting to smoke early in life increases the risks for the early development of cardiovascular disease and reduced lung function, the report said.
"We can and must continue to do more to accelerate the decline in youth tobacco use," said Koh. "Until we end the tobacco epidemic, more young people will become addicted, more people will die, and more families will be devastated by the suffering and loss of loved ones."
Stop-smoking advocates hailed the report.
"This report underscores the critical importance of preventing tobacco use among youth and young adults," Charles D. Connor, president and CEO of the American Lung Association, said in a statement. "This is a wake-up call to all policymakers and community leaders that tobacco addiction is a vicious and deadly cycle that can and must come to an end."
Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said in a statement that the report makes two points clear: "The tobacco industry's marketing is still addicting America's kids, and elected officials need to do more to protect our children from the scourge of tobacco."
The nation has made great progress in reducing smoking, he said, but "this report is a stark warning that the battle against tobacco must be a national priority."
For more information on kids smoking, visit the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids.