Surgeon General: What If Kids Never Started Smoking?

Mar 8, 2012, 6:41 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

What if kids and teens never started smoking? They’d likely never start as adults and be extraordinarily less likely to die of lung cancer, heart disease, stroke and other conditions associated with smoking. That’s the gist of a report released today by the Surgeon General, Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults. It’s the 31st such report by a U.S. Surgeon General, and the first since 1994 to give detailed information on smoking—and the related health consequences—by children and young adults ages 12 to 25.

“We have made progress in reducing tobacco use among youth; however, far too many young people are still using tobacco,” says Surgeon General Regina Benjamin, MD. “Today, more than 600,000 middle school students and 3 million high school students smoke cigarettes. Rates of decline for cigarette smoking have slowed in the last decade and rates of decline for smokeless tobacco use have stalled completely.”

The key driver for increases, according to the report, is ubiquitous marketing by tobacco companies, specifically targeted at children and young adults. “Messages and images that make tobacco use appealing to [young adults] are everywhere,” says Dr. Benjamin.

The report outlines the tobacco industry's marketing and advertising efforts that may affect youth smoking rates:

  • Tobacco companies spend more than a million dollars an hour in the U.S. to market their products.
  • Images in tobacco marketing make tobacco use look appealing to this age group.
  • While the tobacco industry says its marketing only promotes brand choices among adult smokers, the report found that regardless of intent, tobacco marketing encourages underage youth to smoke. More than 80 percent of underage smokers choose brands from among the top three most heavily advertised.
  • The report finds that extensive use of price-reducing promotions has led to higher rates of tobacco use among young people than would have occurred without the price cuts.
  • Through advertising and promotional activities, packaging and product design, the tobacco industry encourages the myth that smoking makes you thin, a message especially appealing to young girls. But teen smokers are not thinner than teen nonsmokers.
  • The report also found that many tobacco products on the market appeal to youth such as cigarette-sized cigars with candy or fruit flavors. And many of the newest smokeless tobacco products don’t require users to spit, or dissolve like mints—so can remain undetected by school officials and parents.
  • Menthol cigarettes may also be among cigarette companies' promotional efforts. The menthol can cut the harshness of cigarette smoking, especially effective in a young person’s early days of smoking, and may keep them smoking rather than dropping the habit. The Surgeon General’s report cites data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration that found that prevalence of smoking menthol cigarettes among smokers ages 12 and older increased from 31 percent in 2004 to 34 percent in 2008. The largest spikes were among kids 12–17 years and young adults aged 18–25 years.

New and recent resources from federal agencies and tobacco control advocacy groups add muscle to the messaging for children and teens that smoking is addictive and harmful:

  • A PSA aimed at young adults released today by the Surgeon General
  • A resource on worldwide tobacco control laws from the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
  • The American Lung Association’s “Disparities in Lung Health” series
  • "I’m Not Buying It," a new video contest challenge announced today by the Office of the Surgeon General, with a top prize of $5,000
  • The Truth campaign, from Legacy Foundation, offers resources specifically for youth, such as games, to help keep them from starting to smoke

>>Read a Q&A with Danny McGoldrick, vice president for research at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, about the new Surgeon General's report.

>>Weigh In: What efforts to prevent youth smoking have you tried in your community?

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.