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New Survey Shows Renewed Progress in Reducing Youth Smoking — Elected Leaders Must Step Up Fight to Accelerate Gains

Statement of Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
December 14, 2011

WASHINGTON, DC (December 14, 2011) — In good news for the nation's health, the Monitoring the Future survey released today shows that youth smoking declined significantly in 2011 and smoking rates are at the lowest levels on record for all three grades surveyed – grades 8, 10 and 12. This news is especially welcome following several years in which youth smoking declines had nearly stalled. However, the rate of decline continues to be slower than in years past, underscoring the need for elected officials at all levels to step up implementation of proven strategies to reduce tobacco use.

For all three grades combined, the proportion who said they smoked in the past month fell to 11.7 percent in 2011, down from 12.8 percent in 2010. The largest drop came among 10th graders, whose smoking rate fell from 13.6 percent to 11.8 percent. The 2011 smoking rate was 6.1 percent for 8th graders and 18.7 percent for 12th graders.

Since youth smoking peaked in the mid-1990s, smoking rates have fallen by 71 percent, 61 percent and 49 percent in grades 8, 10 and 12, respectively. This is a remarkable public health success story and powerful evidence that we know how to win the fight against tobacco by implementing scientifically proven strategies. These include higher tobacco taxes, well-funded tobacco prevention and cessation programs that include mass media campaigns, strong smoke-free laws, and effective regulation of tobacco products and marketing.

The renewed progress in reducing youth smoking comes as the Obama Administration has provided much-needed national leadership in the fight against tobacco. The Administration's accomplishments include a 62-cent increase in the federal cigarette tax in 2009, increased support for tobacco prevention and cessation programs, and enactment of the landmark law granting the Food and Drug Administration authority over tobacco products. In 2010, the FDA imposed new restrictions on tobacco marketing and sales to kids. In addition, several states implemented large cigarette tax increases in 2009 and 2010.

However, as the slower progress in recent years reminds us, it would be a serious mistake for elected leaders to take continued gains for granted. We cannot be satisfied when nearly one in five high school seniors still graduate as smokers, putting them at risk for debilitating diseases and premature death. We cannot let our guard down when the tobacco industry still spends more than $10 billion a year to market its deadly and addictive products and is pushing new products, including new forms of smokeless tobacco and flavored 'little cigars,' that entice youth. We cannot declare premature victory when tobacco remains the nation's leading cause of preventable death, killing more than 400,000 people and costing the nation nearly $100 billion in health care bills each year.

To accelerate progress and prevent backsliding, elected officials at all levels must step up implementation of the solutions that we know work.

In addition to increasing tobacco taxes and enacting smoke-free laws, it is critical that the states restore funding for tobacco prevention programs that have been cut by 36 percent over the past four years. These cuts threaten continued progress against tobacco. It is shameful that the states this year will collect $25.6 billion in revenue from the 1998 state tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes, but will spend only 1.8 percent of it — $456.7 million — on programs to prevent kids from smoking and help smokers quit.

At the federal level, Congress must protect the Prevention and Public Health Fund created by the health care reform law to support disease prevention efforts that improve health and reduce health care costs. This fund is a critical source of support for tobacco prevention and cessation efforts, including state and community programs, telephone quitlines to help smokers quit and media campaigns. The FDA must also continue to effectively exercise its authority over tobacco products, including defending the large, graphic cigarette warnings that have been challenged by tobacco companies.

In addition to its findings regarding cigarette smoking, the Monitoring the Future survey reports on the use of other tobacco products. Smokeless tobacco use climbed by 39 percent among 12th graders between 2006 and 2010, at a time when tobacco companies significantly increased smokeless tobacco marketing and introduced an array of new smokeless products. Though the upward trend was halted in the latest survey, there was no statistically significant decline in smokeless tobacco use, and 14.2 percent of 12th grade boys currently use smokeless tobacco. Smokeless tobacco causes oral cancer and has been linked to a variety of other cancers.

This year's survey reports for the first time on youth use of small cigars, finding that 23 percent of 12th graders — including 27 percent of boys and 12 percent of girls — have smoked small cigars in the past year. It is important that the survey continue to track youth use of all tobacco products as the tobacco industry introduces new products that entice youth.

The Monitoring the Future survey is released by the National Institute of Drug Abuse and conducted by a team of investigators at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.