Teen Smoking Rates at a Standstill

Until just a few years ago, the news was pretty good: The numbers of teens who smoked was declining. But no longer.

"The decline in teen smoking seems to be about over," says Lloyd Johnston, a social psychologist at the University of Michigan, who has surveyed middle- and high-schoolers about tobacco, alcohol and drugs for 32 years. "We didn't see any decline in daily smoking among the eighth-graders this year, and they're usually the first to show changes in direction. And the declines have decelerated considerably in 10th and 12th grade as well."

Johnston says that a lot of the things that helped decrease teen smoking in the late '90s and early 2000s have changed. Some states have pulled back funding for anti-smoking ad campaigns, and a national effort, initially funded with tobacco settlement money, has had its budget cut.

"There also was a very sharp price rise during the decline, and price is a very important factor in whether kids smoke or not," Johnston says.

In addition, bad publicity surrounding the tobacco settlements that took place nine years ago has all but disappeared. Even so, Johnston says, there has been a big and lasting change in kids' attitudes about each other and smoking.

"One of the interesting things that we found is that a proportion of teenagers today who say they would prefer to date someone who doesn't smoke is up to around 75 percent with both genders," Johnston says. "And, so, if a young person decides to smoke, they are by definition making themselves less attractive to three-fourths of the opposite sex, and that's a large social price to pay."

But it's a message that Johnston says hasn't gotten to many kids yet. And that message is contradicted by movies, where people smoking cigarettes are often portrayed as attractive and even sexy. A few weeks ago, the Motion Picture Association of America announced it will consider rating new movies on how they depict smoking.

Ellen Vargas says that's not enough. Vargas is general counsel for the American Legacy Foundation, a public-health group set up with tobacco settlement money. Vargas says cigarette smoking in the movies is a huge problem.

"The research shows it recruits close to 400,000 kids every year to start smoking," Vargas says. "They watch favorite stars smoke and think it's glamorous. Some of them watch the villain smoke and think they want to be like the villains. It has a huge impact."

The notion of smoking being glamorous and modern started back in the l920s, according to Allan Brandt, a social historian at Harvard University. In his new book, Brandt recounts how the tobacco industry historically presented smoking when it started to market to women in the l920s. For example, one company hired debutantes in l928 to smoke in New York's Easter Day Parade.

"Women and men would march in this parade, but the idea that women would take out cigarettes and smoke them publicly was considered a bit of a social scandal; and the tobacco industry knew that controversy like this was very attractive, especially to youth," Brandt says.

Radio and TV cigarette ads have been banned for years. But since l998, with the Master Settlement Agreement between the tobacco industry and 46 states, the industry has also agreed to stop using cartoon characters like Joe Camel in its ads. It also won't advertise on billboards or in children's magazines.

But it can still advertise in other magazines, many of them, such as In Style and Glamour, that appeal to young teenage girls.

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