Teen Smoking Rates at a Standstill A celebrated decline in teen smoking in the late '90s and early 2000s seems to be over. Surveys of middle- and high-schoolers show that the decline has decelerated considerably, and some say the change is due to fewer anti-smoking ad campaigns.
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Teen Smoking Rates at a Standstill

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Teen Smoking Rates at a Standstill

Teen Smoking Rates at a Standstill

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep on this World No Tobacco Day. Countries around the world take this day to support anti-smoking campaigns, especially for kids. And those campaigns have not prevented the following statistic: most American smokers say they started before age 18. So teens and smoking are the subject of Your Health today.

NPR's Patti Neighmond examines how smoking prevention is working among American teens.

PATTI NEIGHMOND: Until just a few years ago, the news was pretty good. The numbers of teens who smoked was declining. But no longer. Lloyd Johnston is a social psychologist at the University of Michigan who has surveyed middle and high-schoolers about tobacco, alcohol and drugs for 32 years.

Mr. LLOYD JOHNSTON (University of Michigan): The decline in teen smoking seems to be about over. 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.

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

Mr. JOHNSTON: There also was a very sharp price rise in the period of decline, and price is an important factor for whether kids smoke or not. So that undoubtedly contributed to it.

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

Mr. JOHNSTON: And one of the things that we found that was of most interest is that a proportion of teenagers today who say they would prefer to date someone who doesn't smoke is up around 75 percent for both genders. And so if a young person decides to smoke, they are almost by definition making themselves less attractive to three-quarters of the opposite sex, and that's a large social price to pay.

NEIGHMOND: But that's a message that hasn't gotten to many kids yet. And it's 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.

Ms. ELLEN VARGAS (General Counsel, American Legacy Foundation): The research shows that it recruits close to 400,000 kids a year to start smoking. They watch their favorite stars smoke, they think it's glamorous. Some of them watch the villain smoke and think they want to be like the villains. It is a huge impact.

NEIGHMOND: 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.

Mr. ALLAN BRANDT (Harvard University): Women and men would march in this parade, but the idea that women would take out cigarettes and smoke them publicly was really considered a bit of a social scandal; and the tobacco industry knew that controversy in ways like this was actually very attractive, especially to youth.

NEIGHMOND: 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 in ads, like Joe Camel. It won't advertise on billboards, and it won't advertise 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.

Patti Neighmond, NPR News.

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