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Higher cigarette prices, anti-smoking efforts by convenience store retailers and Big Tobacco, and a cultural shift away from smoking are contributing to a dramatic drop in the number of teen-agers who pick up the habit, experts say.
In just two years, the number of new teen smokers fell by a third, the government reported. Still, there were 783,000 new smokers ages 12 to 17 in 2000, meaning that 2,145 teens began smoking on the average day, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, an annual benchmark for drug, alcohol and tobacco use. That's down from more than 3,000 new teen smokers a day from 1997, a record high that has been widely cited in the effort to stem tobacco use by minors.
The survey found that the number of new smokers of all ages dropped in 1999 and 2000. Teens still made up the majority of new smokers -- 57 percent in 2000. Another 36 percent of new smokers were ages 18 to 25 when they started. Overall, the average new smoker was 17.7 years old, a number that has changed only minimally over time.
The dramatic decline in new teen smokers came after an equally sharp rise. In 1992, there were fewer than 2,000 new teen smokers each day, a number that climbed by 50 percent in just three years. Experts were hard-pressed to fully explain the recent drop, and they suggested that a third year of data may be needed to confirm the scope of the trend. Still, they said, this and other surveys make it clear that teen smoking is on the decline, according to the Associated Press.
The drop took place during tough years and bad press for cigarette makers. In 1998, tobacco companies agreed to pay $246 billion to settle lawsuits from state governments and went along with unprecedented new restrictions on advertising and marketing. That contributed to higher prices. The average price of a pack of cigarettes went from $1.85 in the beginning of 1997 to $2.92 at the end of 1999. Several studies have found that teens are particularly sensitive to the cost of cigarettes.
At the same time, convenience store chains, Big Tobacco and state officials began stepping up anti-smoking ad campaigns.
"What you're seeing is sort of a cultural swing here and the kids pick up on it," said Dr. Joseph H. Autry III, acting administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the branch of the Department of Health and Human Services that conducts the survey.
Autry recalled that years ago it seemed like everyone was smoking. Then, he'd see the smokers on one side of the room and the non-smokers on the other side. Now, the same room is likely to prohibit smoking altogether. Pinpointing the moment of change is difficult. "It's a cumulative effect, the result of a whole bunch of things coming together," he said.
The survey, also found that in 2000 27.5 percent of people ages 12 to 17 reported drinking in the past month, about the same as in 1999. Nearly half of all Americans drink, another steady figure. But the number of people of all ages who say they had driven under the influence of alcohol fell from 10.9 percent to 10 percent.
The survey included interviews with more then 71,000 people ages 12 and up.