Tobacco Use Among Teens Is Dangerously High

Despite laws designed to keep cigarettes away from kids, 34 percent of U.S. high school students and 15 percent of middle school students use tobacco products, government health officials say.

Those figures mean more than 3 million kids between the ages of 12 and 17 are lighting up, according to the national survey by the Centers for Disease Control's Office of Smoking and Health.

The survey, which included students from 29 states, posed a number of questions to teenagers about tobacco marketing, secondhand smoke and underage purchasing, as well as general use of all types of tobacco products.

Getting Hooked Early

Although the statistics show the number of teens using tobacco has started to decline from record highs in 1997, experts say the numbers are still disturbing given that nearly 90 percent of adult smokers began using tobacco at or before the age of 18.

"We want to emphasize, while cigarettes are the most lethal form of tobacco, adolescents are using many forms of tobacco, and potentially becoming addicted to nicotine from many sources, and will transition into cigarettes," said Terry Pechacek, head of the survey team and associate director for science with the CDC Office on Smoking and Health.

According to the survey, most middle and high school smokers get their tobacco at gas stations and convenience stores.

While the legal age to buy tobacco is 18 throughout most of the United States, the survey shows current laws to be ineffective. Approximately 69 percent of middle school students and 58 percent of high school students reported they were not asked for proof of age when purchasing cigarettes.

Ads and Other Influences

Although the tobacco industry has altered its advertising, ads still lure teens into buying tobacco products, Pechacek said.

"Tobacco companies voluntarily stopped outdoor billboards, but have taken these advertising dollars and put them into local convenience stores," he said.

The study also found one of the "major predictors" of tobacco use to be whether teens spend time with other people who smoke. In the week before the survey, half of the nonsmokers were in a room with someone smoking, and approximately 70 percent of middle school students and 57 percent of high school students who smoke live in a home with a smoker.

Experts believe that more education about tobacco in schools could counteract the bad influences these students face at home.

"Overall, we're finding that many students are receiving some information, but the rate is far below what is recommended," said Pechacek.

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