Teen smoking 'epidemic' but not as bad as it once was, U-M researcher says
The reports sounded alarming: “Staggering teen smoking epidemic,” “teen tobacco epidemic shocks surgeon general,” “shocking teen smoking report sparks call for action.”
The report, the first surgeon general's report on teen smoking since 1994, also included statistics like these: Almost one in four high school seniors smokes cigarettes; about 10 percent of high school senior boys use smokeless tobacco; and about 1 in 5 high school senior boys smokes cigars.
The report also included this fact, which got less media attention: Teen smoking rates have dropped — a lot — since 1997, when more than 35 percent of high school seniors reported smoking cigarettes, according to the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future Survey of teen drug, alcohol and tobacco use.
One man who knows a lot about all these numbers is Lloyd Johnston. He’s a prominent researcher at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and the principal investigator for the Monitoring the Future Survey, which has been surveying national samples of eighth, 10 and 12th-grade students each year since 1991.
The work of Johnston and his fellow Monitoring the Future investigators helped shine a spotlight on the growing use of tobacco among teens in the 1990s. That publicity helped bring about the multi-state tobacco settlement of 1998, which has been used for efforts to help curb teen smoking and resulted in some dramatic changes to tobacco advertising, including the end of cigarette billboard ads and ads featuring the cartoon character Joe Camel.
The surgeon general heavily relied on data from Monitoring the Future in preparing the report released Thursday.
Johnston notes there’s good news in the report. The declining rate of teen smoking shows that messages about the dangers of smoking and societal pressure against smoking have had an impact.“A newer generation of kids has gotten the message about cigarettes and they’re pulling back,” he said.
For Sarah Zimmerman, 16, a junior at Ann Arbor’s Community High School, smoking is a non-issue.
“I don’t really worry about it. No one in my group of friends does it.” Zimmerman said she couldn’t recall the last time she saw someone smoking in the area around the high school.
The declining smoking rate, Johnston said, will have a dramatic positive effect on the health and longevity of this generation, who will have lower rates of smoking -related deadly diseases such as lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema.
That’s not to say there’s nothing to worry about. Teen smoking rates are still high, and the use of smokeless tobacco among teens has risen slightly in recent years. The government is worried that with money from the tobacco settlement running out, the public campaign against smoking could falter, Johnston said.
“The rates of smoking among the age groups that we track reached a record low in 2011. That’s the good news,” Johnston said. “The bad news is we still have 20 percent of kids smoking despite the health consequences we know smoking has.”
Also, for adolescents the risks of smoking go beyond the long-term likelihood of developing lung cancer or heart disease, the report said. Cigarette smoking has almost immediate health consequences for teens, including the possibility of reduced lung function and impaired lung growth and asthma.
Both Johnston and the surgeon general’s report emphasized that a lifelong addiction to tobacco usually begins in adolescence. Every day in the United States, more than 3,800 young people under 18 smoke their first cigarette, the report stated. Almost no one begins smoking after age 18.
“If we want to intervene, adolescence is the place to do it,” Johnston said.
The surgeon general produced the following video to go along with the report:
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