Teen Smoking an ‘Epidemic,’ Surgeon General Says

Nearly one in five teenagers uses tobacco.

"Too many of our children are addicted, too many cannot quit, and too many go on to die far too young," said Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh.(Photo: Reuters)
Originally from Baltimore, Oliver lives and writes on a quiet, tree-lined street in Brooklyn.

Although teen smoking has declined, a new comprehensive report from the U.S. surgeon general says there's still a long way to go.

The study, the first by the government in nearly two decades, shows that nearly one in five teenagers are smoking or using smokeless tobacco. That's a major improvement from 1997, when 36 percent of teens smoked, but health officials are still concerned that the tobacco-free trend seems to be tapering off in recent years, confirming findings reported in December by the CDC.

"Too many of our children are addicted, too many cannot quit, and too many go on to die far too young," Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh said at a Thursday news conference. "Far too many kids still see smoking images and messages every day that normalize this dependence. Kids see smoking in the movies they watch, the video games they play, the websites they visit and in the communities where they live."

While Big Tobacco's billboard advertising and colorful cartoon mascots were banned back in the '90s, the tobacco industry still spends about $10 billion annually marketing their products to the public. Much of the focus has been on creative ways to create buzz around tobacco, using special promotions to reduce prices and direct marketing to entice future or former users, most of them young. At the same time, they've been fighting public awareness efforts, most recently winning a judgment overturning the FDA's mandate to print graphic health warnings on every pack of cigarettes. "They say they don't market to youth, but this group is influenced by it [marketing]," said Surgeon General Regina Benjamin to USA Today.

The grim reality for tobacco pushers is that they will always need a steady supply of new business. With cigarettes no longer the ubiquitous presence they once were in films—according to the CDC, the average number of onscreen tobacco-use incidents in youth-rated movies fell 71 percent between 2005 and 2010—smoking doesn't have the same allure it did in the days when you could smoke on planes and at work. Tobacco companies are painfully aware of how precarious their position is, which is why they're investing billions of dollars to try to convince a new generation of children that smoking isn't one of the worst things you can possibly do to your body.

"In order to end this epidemic, we need to focus on where we can prevent it and where we can see the most effect, and that's with young people," said Benjamin to The Associated Press. "We want to make our next generation tobacco-free, and I think we can."

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