The campaign to reduce teenagers' smoking has stalled, new federal data show, dismaying federal health officials and anti-smoking advocates who said that one of the nation's most important public health priorities is faltering.
Smoking by teenagers fell sharply and steadily between 1997 and 2003, but the latest data from a large federal survey tracking smoking and other risky behaviors among young people found the proportion of teens who smoke leveled off between 2003 and 2007.
“This is the most dramatic indication that the great progress we're making has stalled,” said Terry Pechacek of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which released the new data last week. “This has very negative long-term implications.”
Anti-smoking advocates agreed.
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“More progress must be made to ensure youngsters at these critical age levels continue to turn away from smoking,” Cheryl Healton of the American Legacy Foundation, a Washington-based anti-smoking group, said in a statement.
The data released last week come from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, a nationally representative survey that the government conducts of students in grades nine through 12 every two years to track a variety of risk behaviors, including drug, alcohol and tobacco use.
The proportion of students who smoke jumped from 27.5 percent in 1991 to 36.4 percent in 1997 but then began to fall, hitting 21.9 percent in 2003.
The 2005 survey, however, showed the rate had crept up to 23 percent. Because that change was not statistically significant, officials were waiting for the 2007 figures to determine whether the downward trend had actually stalled.
The 2007 figure is slightly lower at 20 percent, but again, the figure is not statistically significant.
While the survey did show continued declines in some groups, most notably African American girls, the overall downward trend stalled.
“This is a major public health concern,” Pechacek said.
He blamed the trend in part on cuts on anti-smoking campaigns by states that had been funded by a nationwide 1998 settlement of a class-action lawsuit against the tobacco industry.
At the same time, cigarette companies have continued to increase their spending on promotional activities, including heavily advertising brands that teenager are most likely to smoke, working to feature smoking in movies and videos and offering pricing incentives that offset increases in cigarette prices.
Bill Phelps, a spokesman for Altria Group, the parent company of Phillip Morris USA, said his company has a variety of programs aimed at discouraging teen smoking, including punishing stores found selling cigarettes to children.
“We believe kids should not use tobacco,” Phelps said. “We have a pretty significant youth smoking prevention program.”