Study tracks smoking among middle schoolers

1 in 10 pupils smokes, federal survey shows

January 28, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Nearly 10 percent of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders are smoking cigarettes, federal health officials reported yesterday after the first national survey of middle school students.

"It's not surprising when you realize that over one-fourth of high school students smoke -- and they have to start sometime," said Michael P. Eriksen, director of the office on smoking and health at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, which released the study.

CDC for many years has surveyed the tobacco habits of high schoolers -- the studies are regarded as a reliable barometer of smoking patterns among the nation's teen-agers -- but this is the first time the agency has included a comprehensive look at middle school students, ages 11 to 14, along with the older teen-age group.

Specifically, 9.2 percent of middle school students and 28.4 percent of high school students said that they are cigarette smokers.

Unless these trends are reversed, 5 million children under the age of 18 alive today in the United States will die prematurely from cigarette addiction, Eriksen said.

Equally sobering, black youths -- who as high schoolers have historically smoked less and still smoke less than their white counterparts -- now show comparable rates of tobacco use in the middle school years, according to the survey.

"If this pattern continues into high school, we will lose the advantage that African-American teens have enjoyed for the last two decades," Eriksen said.

Since 1976, there has been a considerable gap between the smoking habits of black and white teen-agers, with smoking rates among blacks declining.

Although smoking nearly doubled among black high schoolers between 1991 and 1997, they still continue to lag far behind whites, at 15.8 percent, compared with 32.8 percent among whites and 25.8 percent among Latinos, the CDC said.

But there are no such differences among middle schoolers, the report said. Black middle school students had smoking rates of 9 percent, similar to those for whites, 8.8 percent, and Latinos, 11 percent.

Dr. Lonnie Bristow, past president of the American Medical Association, called for more research, combined with sustained efforts to "counter the appeal and social acceptance of tobacco use among all young people."

The report also showed that almost 13 percent of middle school students use some form of tobacco, including smokeless tobacco, cigars, pipes and two new increasingly popular products, bidis -- tiny flavored cigarettes from India -- and kreteks, also known as clove cigarettes.

In fact, the current use of these novel tobacco products among high school students nearly equaled the use of smokeless tobacco, CDC said. Five percent of teen-agers were smoking bidis and 5.8 percent were smoking kreteks, compared with 6.6 percent using smokeless tobacco.

The latest findings almost certainly will continue to fuel the debate about efforts to restrict youth access to tobacco. Numerous studies have shown that most adult smokers began when they were teen-agers.

The Food and Drug Administration's attempts to regulate nicotine in cigarettes have been mired in litigation and are under review by the Supreme Court. A ruling by the high court is expected this year.

Eriksen said that, despite increasing public attention to youth smoking, "I don't think kids respond very well to rhetoric. They will respond to action."

The survey was conducted by Macro International, a Maryland research group, which surveyed more than 15,000 students at 131 schools nationwide in grades six through 12. The survey was conducted in September and October.

There was some good news about teen smoking in the survey. Smoking among high schoolers dropped in 1999 for the first time since the government began keeping track at the start of the decade. The survey found that 28.4 percent of high school students reported using tobacco products in the preceding month.

In 1997, the last time the CDC looked at high school smoking, 36.4 percent of students said they had smoked in the preceding month. At the time, teen smoking was on the rise, from 34.8 percent in 1995 and 27.5 percent in 1991, the first year the CDC started keeping track.

The CDC said it expected teen smoking rates to drop -- just not by so much. The agency said differences between the 1999 survey and earlier studies may have exaggerated the decline.

The drop in smoking rates had been expected because tobacco companies raised cigarette prices about 45 cents a pack last year to help pay for the $206 billion national settlement.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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