Many of America's teens smoke cigarettes as well as use smokeless tobacco, and the tobacco industry's marketing fuels their addiction, says the first U.S. surgeon general's report on youth tobacco use since 1994.
"The numbers are really shocking," Surgeon General Regina Benjamin said in an interview, citing data in today's report that nearly one in four high school seniors and one in three young adults under age 26 smoke despite a half-century of federal warnings about tobacco.
"It's a problem we have to solve," Benjamin said, calling it a "pediatric epidemic" in need of greater public action. She said one of every three young smokers will quit and one of the others will die from tobacco-related causes. She said adolescents, because their bodies are developing, are more susceptible than adults to nicotine's addictiveness and tobacco's damage to hearts and lungs.
The voluminous report finds that progress in reducing youth cigarette smoking — quite dramatic from 1997 to 2003 — has slowed in recent years. It says more high school students are using smokeless tobacco and many (at least half of white and Hispanic male tobacco users and nearly half of Hispanic female users) both smoke and chew tobacco.
The report concludes that the tobacco industry's $10 billion in annual marketing, some of it in promotions to reduce prices, encourages young people to begin and continue their tobacco use.
"Tobacco marketing is a big cause of the problem," said Danny McGoldrick of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, citing his group's report this week on the industry's partnerships with convenience stores to prominently advertise and display tobacco products.
Another factor, McGoldrick said, is the industry's successful opposition to state tobacco tax increases, which the report credits as an effective way to fight smoking.
"There's already quite a (tax) burden on adult smokers," said Ken Garcia of Altria Group, the parent company of Philip Morris USA, the nation's largest tobacco company. He says about half the price of a pack of cigarettes is state and federal taxes, and states have not used much of the industry funds they've received via a national settlement in 1998 to curb teen use of tobacco.
"We're talking billions," Garcia said, adding that Philip Morris alone has paid $55 billion to states as part of the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement of 1998.
"We market our products to adults," Garcia said.
Philip Morris relies on direct mail, websites that require age verification and the nation's retailers, which are not allowed to sell tobacco products to youths under age 18, he said.
"They say they don't market to youth, but this group is influenced by it (marketing)," the surgeon general said, noting that teens are exposed to such ads.
Benjamin said she's not taking on Big Tobacco or the states but encouraging a renewed emphasis on anti-tobacco efforts that work, including price hikes, smoke-free laws and cessation programs. She said, "My goal is to make our next generation smoke-free."
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