Jun. 8 2000
Washington, DC — The 1999 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) shows that, despite recent progress in the few states with comprehensive tobacco prevention programs, youth smoking rates in the United States remained at near record high levels of 34.8 percent in 1999. This survey should serve as a wake-up call for anyone who has been lulled into believing that we are doing enough to reduce youth smoking in America. While there has been much talk about the need to protect children from tobacco, there has been all too little action. In addition, the tobacco companies have continued to target their advertising at our children, as revealed by two recent studies showing an increase in tobacco advertising in magazines with high youth readership since the November 1998 state tobacco settlement.
The new survey results underscore the need for states to invest significant portions of their settlement funds in comprehensive tobacco prevention programs and for Congress to grant the U.S. Food and Drug Administration real authority to regulate tobacco products, including marketing and sales to children. We know from recent results in Massachusetts and Florida, as well as other states, that tobacco prevention programs work. Massachusetts' progress provides a particularly stark contrast to the national results. Between 1995 and 1999, the YRBS shows that smoking among high school students nationally remained unchanged at 34.8 percent; during the same time period, the YRBS data for Massachusetts show a 15 percent decline in high school smoking rates. Florida's results, including data collected since the YRBS, are even more impressive. In the first two years of its program (1998 to 2000), Florida reduced smoking rates by 24 percent among high school students and 54 percent among middle school students.
The Massachusetts and Florida results offer hope that national youth smoking rates will fall more dramatically if more states implement comprehensive tobacco prevention programs. Unfortunately, while 18 states have implemented or allocated significant funding for such programs, the large majority of states are not doing enough to protect their children from tobacco. Until more states act to protect their kids, any national progress is likely to be incremental and uneven.
It is encouraging that the YRBS shows a small reduction in high school smoking rates from 36.4 percent in 1997 to 34.8 percent in 1999. While this reduction may represent a reversal of the upward trends of the 1990's, it is nowhere near the progress necessary to reverse the dramatic increases in youth smoking of the past decade. The current figure is still more than 25 percent higher than the unacceptable rate of 27.5 percent in 1991, the first year the Youth Risk Behavior Survey was conducted. It is even more discouraging that smoking among high school girls did not decline at all between 1997 and 1999 and frequent smoking (smoking 20 of the past 30 days) among high school students also remained unchanged.
We know what to do to reduce youth smoking. And with the settlement money, we now have the funds to do it. Only if we implement these programs in concert with restrictions on tobacco marketing and other policy solutions can we expect the news from future youth risk surveys to be more positive.