Yesterday, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin called upon the nation to make the next generation tobacco-free, and Partnership for Prevention stands firmly behind her effort to prevent the serious health consequences of nicotine addiction. Far too many youth and young adults are still using tobacco. Today, more than 600,000 middle school students and 3 million high school students smoke cigarettes. The decline in cigarette smoking has slowed in the last decade and the decline in smokeless tobacco use has stalled completely. If we had continued the successes in reducing youth tobacco use that were made between 1997 and 2003, there could be 3 million fewer young smokers today.
The 31st tobacco-related Surgeon General’s Report Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults describes the epidemic of tobacco use among youth ages 12-17 and young adults ages 18-25. It is vital to prevent tobacco use in this age group since virtually no one begins smoking after age 25. Nearly 90% of smokers start smoking by age 18 and 99% start before age 26. Additionally, the younger people are when they start using tobacco, the more likely they will become addicted. About 3 out of 4 teen smokers end up smoking until adulthood, and a third of those who persist in smoking will die prematurely.
It is no accident that youth are taking up smoking—they are constantly surrounded by social and environmental influences that glamorize tobacco use and make it seem like the social norm. Youth see tobacco use in the movies they watch, the video games they play, the websites they visit, and in the communities where they live. Tobacco companies spend more than a million dollars an hour in this country alone to market their products, and more than 80% of underage smokers choose the top three most heavily advertised brands. The industry is also coming out with new products to appeal to the younger generation, including candy-flavored cigars and smokeless tobacco products that look like dissolvable mints. Youth who are exposed to cigarette advertising, images of smoking in movies, or have friends or siblings that smoke are more likely to start using tobacco themselves.
It is critical that we improve the health of the next generation by preventing the onset of tobacco use, both to save lives and health care dollars. If comprehensive tobacco control programs are fully funded at levels recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and states adopt the strategies outlined in this Surgeon General’s report, youth smoking rates can be cut in half in 6 years. We know what works — comprehensive efforts that include mass media campaigns, higher tobacco prices, smoke-free laws and policies, evidence-based school programs, and community-wide efforts. Additionally, adult tobacco cessation as a secondary tobacco prevention strategy for youth should be considered: if less parents, teachers, coaches, actors, and musicians smoke we will be more likely to create a culture in which smoking is de-normalized and smoke-free lifestyles are embraced by young people.
It is essential that we respond to the Surgeon General’s call to action and redouble our efforts to accelerate the decline in youth and young adult tobacco use. America’s future depends on it!
Senior Program Officer