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CDC Survey Shows a Decade of Progress in Reducing High School Smoking; Congress, States Should Finish the Job by Implementing Proven Solutions

Statement of Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
June 27, 2008

Washington, D.C. — The latest survey of high school smoking rates, released today by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), shows that while the nation has made remarkable progress in reducing youth smoking since 1997, rates of current smoking have been essentially stalled since 2003. This survey demonstrates that we know what works to reduce tobacco use and that elected officials at all levels, including Congress, must step up the fight against the nation's No. 1 killer by aggressively implementing proven solutions. Congress has an immediate opportunity to act by passing legislation to grant the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authority over tobacco products, which, among other things, would crack down on tobacco marketing and sales to youth.

The good news in the 2007 Youth Risk Behavior Survey is that the high school smoking rate declined by 45 percent between 1997 and 2007, from 36.4 percent to 20 percent. The high school smoking rate is now at the lowest level since this survey was first conducted in 1991. Smoking has declined significantly among both boys and girls and among all populations surveyed. Since 1997, smoking has declined by 42 percent among white students, 49 percent among African-American students and 51 percent among Hispanic students. In 2007, high school smoking rates were 23.2 percent for white students, 16.7 percent for Hispanic students and 11.6 percent for African-American students.

The dramatic decline in youth smoking since 1997 is powerful proof that scientifically proven measures, implemented primarily at the state and local level, are working. These include higher cigarette prices resulting from state cigarette tax increases and the 1998 state tobacco settlement; a growing number of state and local laws requiring smoke-free workplaces and public places; and effective, well-funded tobacco prevention programs run by the states and nationally by the American Legacy Foundation.

Thanks to these efforts, the country has made great progress over the last decade in reducing youth smoking. Unfortunately that decline has stalled in recent years. From 2003 to 2005, high school smoking rates rose by just over one percentage point, from 21.9 percent to 23 percent. While there was a small improvement from 2005 to 2007—rates declined to 20 percent last year—the reduction was not statistically significant.

This recent stall in progress coincides with aggressive efforts by tobacco companies to discount cigarette prices and undermine state cigarette tax increases, cuts in tobacco prevention programs, and huge increases in tobacco marketing:

  • From 1997 to 2003, when youth (and adult) smoking rates declined significantly, the average real (inflation adjusted) retail price of a pack of cigarettes increased by 75 percent as a result of the tobacco settlement and cigarette tax increases. Since 2003, however the real price has actually declined slightly despite a number of state tobacco tax increases, and smoking declines have subsequently stalled. Cigarette prices have been stable or even declining because the tobacco companies have cut prices and currently spend more than 80 percent of their $13.4 billion marketing dollars on price discounts that counteract the effects of state cigarette tax increases. The tobacco companies have done this because they know that higher cigarette prices are one of the most effective ways to reduce smoking, especially among kids.
  • Between 2002 and 2005, states cut funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs by 28 percent (approximately $200 million). While funding has increased somewhat since, only three states (Maine, Delaware and Colorado) fund tobacco prevention programs at CDC-recommended levels for FY 2008 despite the fact all the states combined collect nearly $25 billion a year in revenue from the tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes. At the national level, the American Legacy Foundation had to reduce its highly successful truth® public education media campaign because most of its funding under the 1998 tobacco settlement ended after 2003.
  • While states cut funding for tobacco prevention, tobacco marketing expenditures have skyrocketed since the 1998 state tobacco settlement. From 1998 to 2005, tobacco marketing expenditures nearly doubled from $6.9 billion to $13.4 billion, according to the most recent Federal Trade Commission report on tobacco marketing.

The lack of greater progress in recent years is a clear warning to elected officials to resist complacency and redouble efforts to reduce tobacco use. We know how to win the fight against tobacco use, but we will not win it and our progress could even reverse without the political leadership to implement proven solutions. Last year, landmark reports by the Institute of Medicine and the President's Cancer Panel agreed on the steps that Congress and the states must take to win the fight against tobacco use:

  • Congress should enact the long-overdue legislation granting the FDA authority over tobacco products. Among other things, this legislation would crack down on tobacco marketing and sales to kids; require larger, more effective health warnings on tobacco products; require tobacco companies to disclose the contents of tobacco products; grant the FDA authority to regulate the contents of tobacco products; and stop tobacco companies from making misleading or unproven health claims. Congress should also significantly increase the federal cigarette tax and fund a national public education campaign.
  • The states must further increase tobacco taxes, enact comprehensive smoke-free workplace laws and adequately fund tobacco prevention programs at CDC-recommended levels.

Tobacco use kills more than 400,000 Americans and costs the nation nearly $100 billion in health care bills each year. While our nation has made remarkable progress in reducing smoking, political complacency and the tobacco companies' aggressive marketing threaten continued progress. Our challenge today is to summon the political will to combat the tobacco epidemic as aggressively as the tobacco companies continue to market their deadly and addictive products. If our nation's leaders do so, we can win the fight against the leading cause of preventable death in the United States.

The CDC survey can be found at