New Survey Finds Youth Smoking Declines Have Slowed, Shows Need for States, Congress to Step Up Tobacco Prevention Efforts

Statement of William V. Corr Executive Director, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

Dec. 21 2006

Washington, DC — Like other recent surveys, the 2006 Monitoring the Future Survey released today by the National Institute on Drug Abuse shows that the nation’s progress in reducing youth smoking has stalled or slowed to a crawl. There is no question that we know how to significantly reduce youth smoking, as evidenced by the fact that smoking has declined by more than half among 8th and 10th graders and by more than 40 percent among 12th graders over the past decade. However, for the third year in a row, the survey finds no statistically significant change in smoking rates for any of the three age groups (although there was a small, statistically significant decline for all three age groups combined).

This survey is another clear warning that the nation’s progress in reducing smoking is at risk unless elected officials at all levels redouble efforts to implement proven measures to reduce tobacco use. At the state level, these solutions include higher tobacco taxes, increased funding for tobacco prevention programs, and laws requiring smoke-free workplaces and public places.

At the federal level, this survey is a timely reminder to the incoming Congress that one of its early priorities should be to pass long-overdue legislation granting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority over tobacco products, including the authority to crack down on tobacco marketing and sales to kids. Congress first debated this issue almost a decade ago, but has failed to act despite the fact that tobacco use remains the nation’s leading preventable cause of death, killing more than 400,000 Americans every year, and despite evidence that the tobacco companies continue to target our children. The public overwhelmingly supports granting the FDA authority over tobacco, and the Senate in 2004 voted 78 to 15 to pass this legislation, but House leaders blocked its passage. By finally granting the FDA authority over tobacco, the new Congress can take a truly historic step to protect our children and the nation’s health.

The evidence that tobacco marketing influences kids to smoke is powerful and growing all the time. A study published in the December 2006 issue of the peer-reviewed journal Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine found that exposure to tobacco marketing and to pro-tobacco depictions in films, television and videos more than doubles the odds that children under 18 will become tobacco users. In an August 2006 ruling that the tobacco companies have violated civil racketeering laws, U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler found that “Defendants’ marketing is a substantial contributing factor to youth smoking initiation” and that “Defendants continue to engage in many practices which target youth.” Since the 1998 state tobacco settlement, total tobacco marketing has more than doubled to at least $15.4 billion a year – more than $41 million each day – according to the latest tobacco marketing reports of the Federal Trade Commission.

The CDC has attributed the stalling or slowing of youth smoking declines to this dramatic increase in tobacco marketing at the same time that states have cut funding for programs to prevent kids from smoking and help smokers quit. States cut funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs by 28 percent between 2002 and 2005, from $749.7 million to $538.2 million. While total funding has increased to $597.5 million in the current 2007 budget year, only three states – Maine, Delaware and Colorado – currently fund such programs at minimum levels recommended by the CDC, while 33 states and DC spend less than half the CDC minimum or provide no funding. The states lack excuses for their failure to do more. There is conclusive evidence that these programs work, and given the record $21.7 billion that the states will collect in tobacco tax and tobacco settlement revenues this year, there is no lack of resources to implement them. At the national level, the American Legacy Foundation has also had to reduce its successful truth® anti-smoking media campaign because most of its funding under the 1998 state tobacco settlement ended after 2003.

Other recent surveys, including the CDC’s 2004 National Youth Tobacco Survey and 2005 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, have also found that youth smoking declines have stalled or slowed. Similarly, the CDC’s most recent survey of adult smoking found that 20.9 percent of U.S. adults smoked in 2005, the same rate as in 2004. This is the first time the adult smoking rate has not declined since 1997, when 24.7 percent of adults smoked.

The good news in today’s survey is that youth smoking rates have declined dramatically from peak levels in the mid-1990s. Smoking rates (those reporting having smoked in the past month) have declined by 58.6 percent among 8th graders (from 21 percent in 1996 to 8.7 percent in 2006), by 52.3 percent among 10th graders (from 30.4 percent in 1996 to 14.5 percent in 2006), and by 40.8 percent among 12th graders (from 36.5 percent in 1997 to 21.6 percent in 2006). The percentage of 12th graders who have ever smoked a cigarette has declined from a high of 65.4 percent in 1997 to 47.1 percent in 2006, the first time in this survey that the number has fallen below 50 percent.

These declines in youth smoking represent a truly remarkable public health success story that will deliver benefits to the nation’s health for generations to come. But the battle is far from won. Too many of our children still become addicted to a product that will sicken and prematurely kill many of them, and the tobacco companies’ aggressive marketing could cause a reversal of progress unless we redouble efforts to implement proven measures to reduce smoking. Our challenge today is to resist complacency and summon the political will to combat the tobacco epidemic as aggressively as the tobacco companies continue to market their deadly and addictive products.