Youths are smoking less, except in middle school

WASHINGTON — Tobacco use by teenagers fell dramatically between 2000 and 2002, but a range of anti-smoking efforts did little to deter middle-school students from taking up the habit, according to data released Thursday by the federal government.

The proportion of high school students using tobacco dropped from 34.5 percent to 28.4 percent in the two-year period, which was marked by higher tobacco taxes, new anti-smoking regulations and an aggressive media campaign aimed at discouraging young people from smoking, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

Although the researchers found a slight dip in smoking by younger children — from 15 percent in 2000 to 13 percent in 2002 — they said the decline was not statistically significant and raises concern that new strategies are needed to reach the nation’s youngest smokers.

"The decline in cigarette smoking is pretty dramatic and very good news," said Corinne Husten, medical officer in the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health.

She and other experts said they cannot be certain why there was not a sharper decline in the 7-12 age group, but they speculated that few middle-schoolers pay for their own smokes, and so are not as influenced by price increases as teenagers. A pack of cigarettes in the United States today costs $3 to $8, depending on state taxes.

"Middle-schoolers don’t have the chutzpah to go into a store and buy cigarettes," said Cheryl Healton, president of the American Legacy Foundation, an advocacy group that conducted the study with the CDC. Healton suggested that portrayals of smoking in PG-rated movies also may factor into the lure of tobacco for youngsters.

Youth smoking was rising until 1996-97, shortly before the tobacco companies signed a landmark 1998 legal settlement with 46 state attorneys general that created a $246 billion fund for prevention programs. That money, allocated to the states, has been spent on a variety of efforts, some aimed directly at smoking, others dedicated to broader health initiatives.

The study of 26,000 youths at 246 schools found no gender difference in smoking rates. White high school students were more likely to smoke than minorities, the survey found. Cigarettes continue to be the top tobacco product among young people.

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States according to CDC, and accounts for $75 billion in direct medical expenses. Each day in 2001, 4,400 youngsters tried their first cigarette, and about 2,000 began to smoke daily.

The CDC, based in Atlanta, projects that at today’s rates, one-third of youngsters smoking today will die of a tobacco-related illness.

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