Cigarette use among teens on the decline

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At one time, the image of James Dean in a black leather jacket casually slouching was the epitome of cool. And that image would not have been complete without a cigarette in his mouth. Smoking was a sign of social status for teens, who wanted to emulate Hollywood heroes and other popular figures who promoted the practice. However, as the health risks of tobacco became clearer, a growing public health movement began to combat the cool image that was at one time associated with smoking.

Over the past several decades some of these efforts have begun to see success. Once a popular pastime the teenage population, cigarette smoking has begun to decline among youths. According to a new survey released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, smoking among high school students is currently at the lowest rate that it has ever been since the organization first began collecting data in 1991.

Declining use among teens

Tobacco use among teens has been a concern of the public health field for many years. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if teenagers continue to smoke at the current rate, an estimated 1 in 13 Americans currently under the age of 18 – about 5.6 million people – will die prematurely due to illnesses related to smoking. Today’s smoking consequently not only has a large impact on the health of the population not only in present, but will also have ramifications on the U.S. for years to come.

However, in the latest CDC National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, only 10.8 percent of high school students reported that they smoke, the lowest number in 24 years. The number is a significant drop from the 15.7 percent reported in 2013, and a drastic change from 1997, when the rate peaked at 36.4 percent before beginning to gradually decline.

“Health risk behaviors among youth vary over time and across the nation, making the YRBS an important tool to better understand youth,” said Laura Kann, PhD, the Chief of the CDC’s School-Based Surveillance Branch. “The YRBS helps us identify newly emerging behaviors and monitor long-standing youth risk behaviors over time. While overall trends for the 2015 report are positive, the results highlight the continued need for improvements in reducing risks among teens.”

The rise of the e-cigarette

While cigarette smoking may be declining among teens overall, an alternative to this traditional method is on the rise: e-cigarettes. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, e-cigarettes – more formerly known as electronic cigarettes – are devices powered by batteries that deliver nicotine in the form of a vapor rather than smoke. The nicotine is usually combined with flavor and other chemicals.

Though less than 11 percent of high school students reported smoking traditional cigarettes in the 2015 survey, 24 percent said that they had used an e-cigarette in the last 30 days. While e-cigarettes are typically advertised as a more health conscious alternative to traditional cigarettes, little is currently known about their actual effect, which is cause for concern among public health workers.

In May 2016, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that it is extending its authority to regulate all tobacco products, including e-cigarettes.

As cigarette smoking among those under 18 has fallen, the use of other nicotine products, including e-cigarettes, has taken a drastic leap. All of this is creating a new generation of Americans who are at risk of addiction,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell said in a statement. “Today’s announcement is an important step in the fight for a tobacco-free generation – it will help us catch up with changes in the marketplace, put into place rules that protect our kids and give adults information they need to make informed decisions.”

Under the FDA’s new guidelines, e-cigarettes cannot be sold to consumers under the age of 18. Manufactures must additionally list the ingredients in their products, which are required to be submitted for the government’s approval.

Public health response

As a member of the public health field, cigarette and general tobacco use are likely a common concern that you encounter. While it is probably a familiar topic, an important part of working in public health is being able to identify and address new concerns and iterations of old problems, as is illustrated by the onset of e-cigarette use.

“Current cigarette smoking is at an all-time low, which is great news. However, it’s troubling to see that students are engaging in new risk behaviors, such as using e-cigarettes,” CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden said. “We must continue to invest in programs that help reduce all forms of tobacco use, including e-cigarettes, among youth.”

Despite the decline, cigarette smoking remains the most common cause of preventable deaths and illness in the U.S. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that approximately 400,000 die each year from smoking-related causes.

To fight back against this troubling statistic, students in the online Master of Public Health program and the University of Arizona’s Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health partner with ASHLine. The resource combines teaching, research and service to help tobacco users in Arizona kick the habit and live a healthier lifestyle. ASHline provides users of all ages with access to a 24/7 free hotline, free coaching, online help, free medication and other resources in pursuit of a tobacco-free life.