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We Can Make the Next Generation Tobacco-Free

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention | 3/15/2012, 2:56 p.m.

The 2012 Surgeon General's report details important new information about tobacco use among youth and young adults, the causes, and the solutions.

The U. S. Surgeon General's reports (SGRs) on tobacco are among the most credible and respected reviews of current data in all of science. Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, U.S. Surgeon General, has just released Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults: A Report of the Surgeon General, which is the 31st SGR on tobacco produced by CDC since 1964.

This latest report details important new facts about the epidemic of tobacco use among youth ages 12 through 17 and young adults ages 18 through 25, including the epidemiology, causes, and health effects of this tobacco use and interventions proven to prevent it.

Tobacco Use Among Young People

We've made progress in reducing tobacco use among youth; however, far too many young people are still using tobacco. Today, more than 600,000 middle school students and 3 million high school students smoke cigarettes. Rates of decline for cigarette smoking have slowed in the last decade, and rates of decline for smokeless tobacco use have stalled completely. In addition:

Every day, more than 1,200 people in this country die due to smoking. For each of those deaths, at least two youth or young adults become regular smokers each day. Almost 90% of those replacement smokers smoke their first cigarette by age 18.

Rates of smokeless tobacco use are no longer declining and appear to be increasing among some groups.

Cigars, especially cigarette-sized cigars, are popular with youth. One out of five male high school students smokes cigars, and cigar use appears to be increasing among other groups.

Use of multiple tobacco products, including cigarettes, cigars, and smokeless tobacco, is common among young people.

Prevention efforts must focus on young adults ages 18 through 25. Almost no one starts smoking after age 25. Nearly 9 out of 10 smokers started smoking by age 18, and 99% started by age 26. Progression from occasional to daily smoking almost always occurs by age 26.

Immediate and Long-Term Damage

Tobacco use by youth and young adults causes both immediate and long-term damage. One of the most serious health effects is nicotine addiction, which prolongs tobacco use and can lead to severe health consequences. The younger that youth are when they start using tobacco, the more likely they'll be addicted. Other stark facts include the following:

Early cardiovascular damage is seen in most young smokers; those most sensitive die very young.

Smoking reduces lung function and retards lung growth. Teens who smoke are not only short of breath today--they may end up as adults whose lungs will never grow to full capacity. Such damage is permanent and increases the risk for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Youth are sensitive to nicotine and can feel dependent earlier than adults. Because of nicotine addiction, about three out of four teen smokers end up smoking into adulthood, even if they intend to quit after a few years.

Among youth who persist in smoking, a third will die prematurely from smoking.

Social and Environmental Influences

Youth are vulnerable to social and environmental influences to use tobacco; messages and images that make tobacco use appealing to them are everywhere. In addition:

Young people want to fit in with their peers. Images in tobacco marketing make tobacco use look appealing to this age group.

Youth and young adults see smoking in their social circles, movies they watch, video games they play, Web sites they visit, and many communities where they live. Smoking is often portrayed as a social norm, and young people exposed to these images are more likely to smoke.

Youth identify with peers they see as social leaders and may imitate their behavior. Those youth whose friends or siblings smoke are more likely to smoke.

Youth who are exposed to images of smoking in movies are more likely to smoke. Those who get the most exposure to onscreen smoking are about twice as likely to begin smoking as those who get the least exposure. Images of smoking in movies have declined over the past decade; however, in 2010, nearly a third of top-grossing movies produced for children--those with ratings of G, PG, or PG-13--contained images of smoking.