Aug. 25 2000
Washington, DC — Today's release of data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) compiled by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the steady increase in youth smoking during the 90s has been stopped and rates, in fact, may be declining slightly. However, overall smoking rates among U.S. high school students are still more than 25 percent higher than in 1991. In addition, the small declines are only for high school boys while the rates for girls have stayed at unacceptably high levels. During much of the past decade, there was a great deal of lip service paid to how serious the problem of youth smoking had become, but very little was done about it. Only a very few states have undertaken serious actions to curb youth smoking and those that have, like California, Massachusetts and Florida have seen dramatic decreases in the numbers of kids using tobacco products.
The CDC data shows the tobacco industry has much to answer for. The sharpest increases in youth smoking during the 90's came at a time when the tobacco companies increased their marketing expenditures. The biggest youth smoking boost occurred between 1993 and 1995, prompted in part by prolonged and calculated cigarette price decreases by the tobacco companies. Big Tobacco knew exactly what it was doing.
Between 1997 and 1999, the YRBS shows modest declines in smoking among high school students. These declines are most likely the result of two important factors – effective state tobacco prevention programs and price increases. While the recent declines in youth smoking are cause for some guarded optimism, the pediatric epidemic of smoking that peaked in the 90's is still very real. The results of the CDC survey, while promising, do not reflect that progress is not being made in every state. The good news is that the few states in the U.S. with effective tobacco prevention programs have seen large declines in youth smoking. The bad news is that the rest of the country is lagging far behind.
The data from the CDC study make it crystal clear that comprehensive state prevention programs and targeted increases in cigarette taxes can and do make a profound difference in how many kids become regular smokers. State legislators should heed the results of the CDC survey and implement state prevention programs with money from the multi-state tobacco settlement. These programs are already saving millions of lives and dollars in the few states that have them. There is no excuse for the rest of the states to delay in making a concerted effort to keep tobacco out of the hand of children. Congress should also recognize the importance of the data from the CDC by giving the FDA the authority it needs for meaningful regulation of the tobacco industry.