Survey Shows Continued Progress In Reducing Youth Smoking
It is good news for the nation's health that the 2008 Monitoring the Future survey released today finds that smoking rates among 8th, 10th and 12th graders have declined to the lowest levels recorded in this survey for all three grades. However, like other recent surveys of youth and adult smoking, this survey also shows that smoking declines have slowed in recent years. It would be a serious mistake to declare premature victory in the battle against tobacco use when one in five high school seniors still smokes.
This survey confirms that we know how to dramatically reduce tobacco use. But elected officials at all levels must resist complacency and step up the fight against the nation's number one cause of preventable death. It is especially critical that the incoming Administration and Congress provide long-missing national leadership by enacting legislation granting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulatory authority over tobacco products. Among other things, this legislation would crack down on tobacco marketing and sales to kids.
There is much to celebrate in the Monitoring the Future survey, which was released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Since peaking in the mid-1990s, smoking rates (the percentage who have smoked in the past 30 days) have declined by 68 percent among 8th graders, 60 percent among 10th graders and 44 percent among 12th graders. These declines are a remarkable public health success story and will translate into improved health, longer lives and lower health care costs for generations to come.
These declines are powerful evidence that scientifically proven solutions, implemented primarily at the state and local level, are working. These include higher cigarette prices resulting from state cigarette tax increases and the 1998 state tobacco settlement; effective, well-funded tobacco prevention programs run by some states and nationally by the American Legacy Foundation; and a growing number of state and local laws requiring smoke-free workplaces and public places.
However, smoking declines among both youth and adults have slowed in recent years, following budget cuts to some tobacco prevention and cessation programs and huge increases in tobacco marketing expenditures. From 1998 to 2005, tobacco marketing nearly doubled from $6.9 billion to $13.4 billion, according to the most recent Federal Trade Commission data. Tobacco companies now spend the bulk of their marketing budgets on price discounts, which undermine efforts to discourage smoking by increasing cigarette prices.
The Monitoring the Future survey shows the impact of these harmful trends. It finds a statistically significant decline in smoking this year only among 10th graders. There has not been a statistically significant year-to-year decline in smoking among 12th graders since 2003, and 20.4 percent of high school seniors still smoke.
There is even greater cause for concern this year. The country's serious economic downturn - and resulting state budget shortfalls - have already resulted in cuts to tobacco prevention efforts and greater cuts are threatened. If the states cut funding for these important and effective programs, the progress we've made will be put at risk. The states this year will collect $24.6 billion in revenue from the tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes, so they have plenty of tobacco money to fund tobacco prevention.
There is no question that we know how to win the fight against tobacco use. What's needed is the political leadership to more aggressively implement proven solutions nationally and in every state. Recent landmark reports by the Institute of Medicine and the President's Cancer Panel have agreed on the steps that Congress and the states must take to accelerate declines in tobacco use - and eventually eliminate the death and disease it causes:
* Congress should enact legislation granting the FDA authority to regulate the manufacturing, marketing and sale of tobacco products. The U.S. House of Representatives on July 30 voted 326 to 102 to approve this legislation, and it has 60 sponsors in the Senate, including President-elect Barack Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. This legislation presents the incoming Administration and Congress with the opportunity for an early, bipartisan victory that would significantly improve the nation's health.
* Congress should also significantly increase the federal tobacco tax, fund national and state-based tobacco prevention and cessation campaigns, and require coverage by all public and private health plans of interventions (including counseling and medications) proven to help smokers quit.
* Every state should fund a tobacco prevention and cessation program at the level recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, as a report released last month by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and our partners showed, no state is currently meeting the CDC's recommendation, and only nine states are funding prevention programs at even half the CDC's recommendation. In the last 10 years, the states have received $203.5 billion in tobacco-generated revenue from the tobacco settlement and tobacco taxes, but have spent only 3.2 percent of it ($6.5 billion) on tobacco prevention and cessation programs.
* The states should also enact comprehensive smoke-free workplace laws and further increase tobacco taxes. To date, 24 states and the District of Columbia have enacted smoke-free laws that include restaurants and bars. Every state should do so. While 44 states and the District of Columbia have increased tobacco taxes in recent years, there are vast disparities in state tobacco tax rates, from 7 cents per pack in South Carolina and 17 cents in Missouri to $2.75 in New York and $2.58 in New Jersey.
Tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, killing more than 400,000 people and costing the nation nearly $100 billion in health care bills each year. While our nation has made remarkable progress in reducing smoking, political complacency and the tobacco companies' aggressive marketing threaten continued progress. If Congress and the states show the political will to implement proven solutions, we can win one of the most significant public health victories in our nation's history.