If you can’t recall recent headlines about America’s teen smoking epidemic, there’s a good reason: The U.S. Surgeon General’s office hasn’t issued a report on youth tobacco use since 1994.
The new 920-page report issued last month shows some alarming numbers. Nearly one in five high school-aged teen smokes. It’s a smaller ratio than previous decades, but according to Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, the rate of decline in the last few years has slowed. Further, according to the report, more than 80 percent of smokers start by age 18, and 99 percent of adult smokers in the U.S. today started by age 26.
A few more key statistics: Since the 1994 report, smoking among high school students has declined from 27.5 percent to 19.5 percent, or about 3 million students, but the rate of decline has stalled since 2007. About 5.2 percent, or 600,000 middle school students also are current smokers. According to the report, every day in the U.S., more than 3,800 people under the age of 18 smoke their first cigarette and more than 1,000 of them become daily smokers. They replace the 1,200 people who die each day in the U.S. from smoking.
In a USA Today interview, Benjamin called smoking a “pediatric epidemic” that calls for increased public action. She noted that one of every three young smokers will quit and one of the others will die from tobacco-related causes. Adolescents, because their bodies are developing, are more susceptible than adults to nicotine’s addictiveness and tobacco’s damage to hearts and lungs.
The medical news website MedPageToday called out research in the report that showed that adolescent smoking health risks “begin immediately.” These include shortness of breath, wheezing and asthma in susceptible adolescents, impaired lung growth and reduced lung function, and early abdominal aortic atherosclerosis in young adults. And notably, while some teens start smoking to aid weight loss, the report concluded that data doesn’t support nicotine as a weight loss aid; further, there’s evidence it’s actually a gateway drug to marijuana and other illegal drugs.
Although a CBS News report noted that Benjamin didn’t point fingers at the causes for the slowed decline, it did report that the nation’s five biggest tobacco companies spent nearly $10 billion in 2008 on cigarette marketing, a 48 percent increase from spending in 1998, when some of the companies agreed with state attorney generals to curtail or stop some marketing efforts.
Benjamin told USA Today that she doesn’t plan on taking on big tobacco. Instead, she’s encouraging a renewed emphasis on anti-tobacco efforts that work, including price hikes, smoke-free laws and cessation programs.
What’s your take? Are we taking the right steps to reduce smoking among U.S. teens?