WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Efforts to reduce teen smoking have stalled in the past five years as states lose funding for anti-tobacco efforts and as companies use new strategies to recruit customers, U.S. health officials said on Thursday.
While fewer youths are trying cigarettes for the first time, overall smoking rates stayed stable at just under 22 percent for students aged 14 to 18 between 2003 and 2007, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.
Many fewer students have ever tried a cigarette — just 50 percent, down from 70 percent in 1999. But CDC officials were not celebrating this number.
“We had seen this great progress from 1999 to 2003 and we were turning around this epidemic of increase in the 1990s that had everybody concerned,” Terry Pechacek of CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health said in a telephone interview.
“Unfortunately, that progress has not been maintained.”
The CDC looked at a regular survey of tens of thousands of high school students done every year by the federal government.
The percentage of students who said they had ever smoked a cigarette fell from 70 percent in 1999 to 58 percent in 2003 and 50 percent in 2007, it found.
There were also fewer frequent smokers, with just 8 percent of students saying they smoked 20 or more cigarettes in the past month, compared to 16.8 percent in 1999.
EMPHASIS SWITCH, PRICE-CUTTING
But the number of students who said they had smoked at least one cigarette in the past month was stable. In 1997, 36 percent of high school students said they had smoked recently. This fell to 21.9 percent by 2003 but has remained stable since, the CDC reported.
Pechacek sees this as a dangerous trend, because even light smoking can lead to addiction.
“We are taking the emphases off of youth smoking across the nation,” he said. “We have moved on to obesity, we have moved onto other issues.”
He said price increases on cigarettes have been proven to reduce teen smoking, but states are not keeping up the effort.
“The industry is putting billions of dollars into price cutting. We know that the amount of counter-marketing in our states ... has decreased since 2002-2003 and some of our biggest states have gone offline, like Florida, Massachusetts and Minnesota,” he said.
He also said films and video games were often depicting smoking as glamorous.
“It’s kind of like mercury pollution in our fish. Smoking imagery is all over the place in DVDs, in video games. This visual world of youth is polluted with tobacco imagery. You have to take aggressive action to clean that up.”
The CDC report found one area of significant progress — among black girls.
“The prevalence of current cigarette use increased from 11.3 percent in 1991 to 17.7 percent in 1999 and then declined to 8.4 percent in 2007,” the CDC report reads.
Pechacek said it was not clear what happened, but the trend shows that if black girls can be encouraged to quit in greater numbers, so can other high school students.
Reporting by Maggie Fox; Editing by Julie Steenhuysen and Eric Walsh