Preventing Youth Smoking
The National Youth Tobacco Survey released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides further evidence that the United States has made dramatic progress in reducing youth smoking, but the rate of decline has slowed significantly in recent years.
Like other recent surveys, this survey sends an unmistakable message to elected officials at all levels: We know how to win the fight against tobacco – the nation’s number one cause of preventable death – but our progress is at risk unless we resist complacency and step up efforts to implement proven strategies. These include well-funded tobacco prevention and cessation programs, higher tobacco taxes, smoke-free air laws, and effective regulation of tobacco products and marketing.
Our nation is at a crossroads in the fight against tobacco. If elected leaders provide the resources and political will to aggressively implement these solutions, we can achieve one of the greatest public health victories in our nation’s history. If they fail to do so, the nation’s progress against tobacco could end and even be reversed. The new survey again demonstrates that we know how to dramatically reduce tobacco use.
Between 2000 and 2009, cigarette smoking rates declined by 39 percent among high school students (from 28 percent to 17.2 percent who have smoked in the past 30 days) and by 53 percent among middle school students (from 11 percent to 5.2 percent). There were also large declines in the percentages of high school and middle school students who were current users of any tobacco products or who had ever experimented with cigarettes. Between 2006, when the survey was last conducted, and 2009, the survey found that smoking rates declined from 19.8 percent to 17.2 percent among high school students and from 6.3 percent to 5.2 percent among middle school students. However, the CDC reported that these overall declines were not statistically significant, although there were statistically significant declines in smoking among both high school and middle school girls.
Why have smoking declines slowed in recent years? The CDC and other experts have cited several factors, including large cuts in funding for state tobacco prevention and cessation programs and the tobacco industry’s continued heavy spending to market its deadly and addictive products. Between 2008 and 2010, states cut funding for tobacco prevention programs by 21 percent, from $717.7 million to $567.5 million. In contrast, the tobacco companies spent $12.8 billion on marketing in 2006 (the latest year for which data are available), and the bulk of it is spent on price discounting that has kept cigarette prices flat despite tax increases.
The challenge for elected leaders today is to finally fight tobacco use with the political will and resources that match the scope of the problem. All levels of government must do more: At the federal level, the FDA must effectively exercise its new authority to regulate the manufacturing, marketing and sale of tobacco products. In addition, the Obama Administration and Congress must implement a national tobacco prevention and cessation campaign.
The Prevention and Public Health Fund created as part of the health care reform law provides one opportunity to do so. The states must use more of the billions of dollars they collect from the 1998 tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes to fund tobacco prevention and cessation programs. In addition, they must continue to increase tobacco taxes and enact comprehensive smoke-free laws that apply to all workplaces and public places. Despite the progress we have made, tobacco use still kills more than 400,000 Americans and costs $96 billion in health care bills each year. We cannot declare victory until we have eliminated the death and disease caused by tobacco.
Ms. Jensen is a leading advocate for families and children and was the founder and president of ACES, The Association for Children for Enforcement of Support.
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