Thirty-four years ago, I came home from first grade and asked my father, who had been a smoker since his teenage years, to quit smoking. At school, we’d learned about a new campaign, the Great American Smokeout Day, which was coming up, and about the harmful effects from smoking. I remember feeling terrified about what his daily smoking meant for his health. My father quit smoking the next day, on the third Thursday in November 1977.
Back then, more than one third of Americans were smokers and about 29 percent of high school seniors reported smoking daily. Today, the latest data tell us that significant progress has been made. Just one in five adults report being current smokers, and the percentage of high school seniors who smoke daily has dropped to 10.7 percent in 2010. (See Child Trends’ recent Indicator Brief on Adolescent Daily Cigarette Use by my colleague, David Murphey, for more information.)
Despite these declines, more than 8.2 million young people between the ages of 12 and 20 currently use some form of tobacco. According to a newsletter from the U.S. HHS Office of Adolescent Health, more than six million of today’s adolescents and young adults will eventually die a preventable death from tobacco.
For many social problems, those of us involved with policy and research often turn to data to better monitor and describe troubling trends or to identify promising solutions. In this case, the data are clear: overwhelming scientific evidence confirms that tobacco use is harmful to health. Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States. The tobacco industry has been required to invest substantial resources in educating the public about these ills, cigarette advertising to youth has been restricted, and prices for cigarettes have gone up (Child Trends’ Adolescent Daily Cigarette Use). In many states, smoking has been banned from public buildings, spaces and private businesses.
The Great American Smokeout Day movement combined with efforts to increase public awareness, and smart public policies have all contributed to the overall decline in smoking in the United States.
And yet, each day, 3,800 adolescents will try a cigarette for the first time. Research shows that the earlier adolescents begin smoking cigarettes, the more likely they are to become addicted to nicotine. According to results from a nationally representative health survey, nearly 90 percent of adults who smoke started smoking during adolescence, or earlier.
So what can we do, those of us who monitor children’s health outcomes to inform policy and practice, when the data are clear and the policies align with the intended outcomes, and yet the problem persists?
We keep on. The Office of Adolescent Health newsletter reports that for every one percentage-point reduction in the youth smoking rate, it is estimated that 172,000 of today’s high school students will not start smoking and 56,000 will not die a tobacco-related death.
Today, on the Annual Great American Smokeout Day, I’m hoping that we not only can encourage our young people who are smoking to quit, but that we can do more to prevent our children from ever starting.
Marci McCoy-Roth, Senior Policy and Communications Director
This blog was written using data prepared by my colleagues here at Child Trends for a variety of briefs and reports (cited where possible though some are pending). Special thanks to David Murphey, Lina Guzman, Jennifer Manlove, Megan Barry and Brigitte Gavin for their outstanding and ongoing research.
 Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration Office of Applied Studies. (2010). Results from the 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed tables. Tables 2.2A-2.5A. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Service,. Retrieved March 14, 2011, from http://www.oas.samhsa.gov/NSDUH/2k9NSDUH/tabs/Sect2peTabs1to10.pdf
 Hahn, E. J., Rayens, M. K., Chaloupka, F. J., Okoli, C. T. C., & Yang, J. (2002). Projected smoking-related deaths among U.S. youth: A 2000 update. ImpacTeen Research Paper Series, No. 22.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, & National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2010). Health topics: Tobacco use and the health of young people. Retrieved February 16, 2011, from http://www.cdc.gov/HealthyYouth/tobacco/facts.htm.
 National Survey on Drug Use and Health cited by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. (2010). Tobacco use among youth. Retrieved February 16, 2011, from http://tobaccofreekids.org/research/factsheets/pdf/0002.pdf
 Campaign from Tobacco-Free Drugs. (2010). Benefits and savings from each one percentage point decline in the USA smoking rates. Washington, DC. Available at http://www.tobaccofreekids.org/research/factsheets/pdf/0235.pdf