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CDC Survey Shows Slow Declines in Youth Cigarette Smoking, but Troubling Increase in Cigar Smoking by African-American Teens

Statement of Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
August 09, 2012

WASHINGTON, DC – Like other recent surveys, the 2011 National Youth Tobacco Survey released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that the U.S. continues to slowly make progress in reducing youth cigarette smoking, with smoking rates falling to new lows of 15.8 percent among high school students and 4.3 percent among middle school students in 2011. Since peaking in the mid-1990s, youth smoking rates have been cut by more than half.

These youth smoking declines are good news for our nation's health 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.

However, the new survey also raises two clear warning flags. First, like other surveys, it shows that smoking declines have slowed in recent years, underscoring that elected officials cannot be complacent and must step up implementation of the strategies we know work.

Second, the survey shows that there was a significant increase in cigar smoking among African-American high school students from 2009 to 2011 (from 7.1 percent to 11.7 percent). The survey also found high rates of cigar smoking and smokeless tobacco use among high school boys, with 15.7 percent smoking cigars and 12.9 percent using smokeless tobacco. Among all high school students, rates of cigar smoking and smokeless tobacco use have stayed steady even as cigarette smoking has declined.

These troubling trends come as tobacco companies have countered declines in cigarette smoking by marketing a variety of new cigar and smokeless tobacco products, many with sweet flavors and colorful packaging that attract kids. In particular, some cigar manufacturers have exploited tax and regulatory loopholes to market cheap, sweet-flavored cigars that look and are smoked just like cigarettes. To evade higher tax rates on small cigars, manufacturers have increased the weight of some small cigars to qualify for the lower tax rate on large cigars, keeping them cheap and affordable for kids. In addition, because cigars are not yet regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, tobacco companies have been able to circumvent a ban on candy and fruit-flavored cigarettes by marketing similarly flavored cheap cigars.

Congress and the FDA must take action to close these loopholes and stop the tobacco industry's latest strategies to target our kids. Congress and the states should increase tax rates on all tobacco products to the same rate as cigarettes to prevent tobacco companies from evading taxes and marketing cheaper products that entice kids.

The FDA should use the authority it received under a 2009 law to assert jurisdiction over cigars and all other tobacco products, as it promised to do in December 2010. Until the FDA does so, tobacco companies will continue to find ways around existing regulations aimed at protecting kids and public health. It is also imperative that Congress reject pending legislation (H.R. 1639 and S. 1461) to exempt some cigars from regulation, which would help tobacco companies continue marketing cheap, sweet-flavored cigars to kids.

Today's survey shows that we have made tremendous progress in the fight against tobacco use, the nation's number one cause of preventable death. But it is also a timely reminder that the battle against tobacco is far from over and tobacco companies remain as ruthless as ever in targeting our kids, the replacement smokers they need for the more than 400,000 Americans killed by tobacco use each year. Elected officials and the FDA must be equally aggressive in taking action to protect our children.