Teens: Smoking Less, Calling It 'Scummy' More

But the trend may reverse as states lower funding for anti-smoking programs.

Rates of teen tobacco and cigarette use fell from 36 percent in 1997 to 20 percent in 2009. (Photo: Joanna B. Pinneo/Getty Images)

A long-haired teenager clad in black leather jacket and jeans leaned against the wall of his high school, lit a cigarette, and took a long drag. Thirty years ago, that kid would have been the epitome of cool. Would today’s adolescents agree?

Not necessarily, said Wesley, a 15-year-old student who recently transferred from a public to a private high school. He estimated that about 15 percent of the kids in his grade smoked, but as he told TakePart, being cool wasn’t what they were after. 

“I think most teens smoke because it makes them feel good and some people just have addictive behaviors,” he said. “The people who smoke cigarettes typically just do it because they like the buzz they get from it. Some people find it kind of scummy when other people smoke cigarettes.”

Wesley’s assessment was in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) analysis of the National Youth Tobacco Survey of middle and high school students.  

They found that rates of teen tobacco and cigarette use fell from 36 percent in 1997 to 20 percent in 2009. 

Dr. Kenneth Warner, a professor of public health at the University of Michigan widely recognized for his extensive research on tobacco use, told TakePart that the decrease in teen smoking rates can be explained by several factors. 

“Teen smoking rates have fallen substantially over the past several years, thanks primarily to increased cigarette taxes (and hence prices), the continuing efforts of the truth campaign, and likely the smoke-free workplace laws, which have made smoking illegal in restaurants and bars,” he explained.

Additionally, according to the CDC, the average number of onscreen tobacco-use incidents in youth-rated movies fell 71 percent between 2005 and 2010, mirroring an overall decline in the media’s glamorization of smoking.

But while these circumstances indicated good news, others showed ongoing cause for concern. 

Between 2006 and 2009, declines in tobacco use among teens slowed dramatically, dropping only by two percent. The CDC also reported that the percentage of middle and high school students who never tried cigarettes but were open to trying remained stable.

Since today’s cigarette-buying youth will become tomorrow’s chain smokers, funding for tobacco prevention programs should be on the rise. But the exact opposite is happening instead.

A 2011 report by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids found that states cut funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs to their lowest level in over a decade. 

This year, states will collect $25.6 billion in revenue from the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement and tobacco taxes, but will spend only 1.8 percent of it on programs to prevent kids from smoking.  

“There is every reason to expect that the reduction in funding will diminish the effectiveness of efforts to reduce teen smoking,” Warner asserted. He also indicated that schools were not likely to implement potent education strategies to fight teen tobacco use.

“There are efficacious school health education programs that could reduce youth smoking if applied as intended,” he explained. “However, schools, teachers, and school boards have never devoted the resources that would be necessary to make these programs work in practice. They need to be professionally administered and they need to have ‘booster’ programs, meaning that anti-smoking education needs to hit kids every couple of grades through high school, not simply once or twice.”

Fifteen-year-old Wesley attested to the fact that this type of intervention hasn’t happened at his school. “At my middle school we had a class called Guidance that was a quarter long. In that class they discussed the risks of certain behaviors like smoking and tried to guide us towards a better life. But it really didn’t help at all. Kids still smoke and drink now that they’re in high school.”

Then he added: “But weed is way more popular among high school students.”

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