New Report Shows Teen Smoking Still Falling Slowly

The University of Michigan runs an excellent study of youth substance use called “Monitoring The Future”. Since it began 35 years ago, the researchers have conducted large surveys of U.S. school kids in order to monitor their use of psychoactive substances and attitudes to such use.

The 2009 data involved surveying over 46,000 8th, 10th and 12th graders in 389 schools, has just been released. It shows that in 2009, 20% of 12th graders had smoked a cigarette in the past month, and 11% were daily smokers. These numbers represent a sharp decline from the peak in 1997, when 37% of 12th graders had smoked in the past month. The decline is sharper at younger ages. For example, in 1996 21% of 8th graders (age 13-14) said they had smoked in the past month, whereas in 2009 it was only 7%.

While these changes are positive, there remains considerable room for improvement, as current use levels amount to billions of cigarettes being smoked by U.S. youth every year. One area that particularly needs improving is youth access to cigarettes. Almost 80% of 10th graders and almost 60% of 8th graders stated that it would be relatively “easy” for them to get cigarettes.

One other positive sign is that in 2008, 81% of 8th graders and 75% of 12th graders said they “would prefer to date people who don’t smoke.” This is a strong sign of smoking becoming less socially acceptable for young people.

On a less positive note, there were some signs that smokeless tobacco use may be on the increase among white males. Very few girls use snuff or chewing tobacco, but in 2009 16% of 12 grade boys used smokeless tobacco, the highest rate since 1997. This habit is particularly prevalent among white boys in the Midwest. This high use appears to be associated with promotion of smokeless tobacco in connection with rodeo events followed by teens. There is also a concern that some of the newer smokeless tobacco products can be used more discretely, including while teens are in school.

Youth use of illicit drugs appears to be fairly stable (e.g. in 2009, 23.2% of 12th graders had used an illicit drug- mainly marijuana – in the past month, compared with 26.2% at the recent peak in 1997). 43% of 12th graders had used alcohol in the previous month, compared to over 70% in the late 1970s. So broadly speaking there is no evidence suggesting that youth tobacco use is being replaced by other substance use. Conversely in most circumstances use of most substances appears to fall at the same time.

So generally the trends in tobacco and other substance use among use appear to be going in the right direction. However, there is still plenty of room for improvement. It remains concerning for parents that three quarters of teens say they could get cigarettes easily and that around a quarter of high school seniors used an illegal drug in the past month.

You can access more detailed presentation of these recent trends at:
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About the Author

MA, MAppSci, PhD

Dr. Jonathan Foulds is an expert in the field of tobacco addiction.