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Teen Smoking Rates Level Off - A Troubling Trend

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Posted: 7/29/2005

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Teen smoking rates – which plummeted dramatically over the past eight years – now appear to be leveling off, a trend that concerns many public health experts. They’re worried not just about the diminishing numbers of teens who are choosing to quit, but also about what may be in store for the 1 million plus new smokers who are succumbing to the habit each year.

Dr. Karen Ahijevych, a smoking cessation expert in The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, says the flattening trend line may be due, in part, to the likelihood that hip and highly visible anti-smoking campaigns have already convinced the most motivated quitters, leaving a hard core of the most strongly addicted smokers behind.

“That seems to be the case with adults, but there have been so few studies about what’s happening with kids that we’re really not sure that’s what’s going on,” says Ahijevych.

National data show that there was a significant increase in teen smoking rates in the United States between 1990 and 1997. “Something happened in 1997. We don’t know what it is, but that’s when the picture started to change,” says Ahijevych.

“Smoking” is defined differently among teen-agers than it is in adults. Tobacco experts count a teen-ager as a smoker if he or she has used tobacco at any point in the past 30 days. Under those terms, Ahijevych says about a quarter of all high school seniors today would be considered smokers.

But she adds that even at that rate, tobacco use is dangerous. “People downplay the fact that kids can become addicted just like adults. We already know they need as much help quitting as adults.”

She says no one has figured out yet the best medium – or message – to help teens quit, but Ahijevych has reviewed recent cessation studies and believes the solution may lie in a mix of family and school-based interventions.

Ahijevych is especially worried about kids who wean themselves away from cigarettes but who opt for something just as troublesome – fruit or candy-flavored bidis, popular in Europe and Asia.

“Teens may see these as a healthier, natural choice, but these products have been tested and they can have 2-to-3 times the amount of nicotine and carbon monoxide and five times the tar than a traditional cigarette manufactured here in the United States.

In addition, she points out that tobacco products made in India are typically more densely packed and tightly wrapped that those made in the U.S., so a smoker has to puff harder to keep the cigarette burning, thus inhaling more potentially harmful carcinogens.

Smoking cessation experts are also concerned that support for continued anti-smoking campaigns is drying up. Many states have siphoned millions of dollars from their Master Tobacco Settlement awards to offset huge budget deficits, and money for anti-smoking campaigns from other sources is scare, too.

The best way to quit? “There’s really no one way that’s best for everybody,” says Ahijevych. “The best programs help individuals find out what’s best for them. And that usually means a combination of tactics combined with a lot of support.”

The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute is one of the nation’s leading centers for research on the prevention, detection, diagnosis and treatment of cancer. OSUCCC-James encompasses six interdisciplinary research programs and includes more than 200 investigators who generate over $100 million annually in external funding. OSU James is a founding member of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, and The James is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of America’s best cancer hospitals.

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Michelle Gailiun
Medical Center Communications