Which kids in the US are most likely to use tobacco?

The tobacco industry has a problem. Its products kill the consumers when used as intended. Given the high rate of people ceasing tobacco use due to premature death or success in beating the addiction, the industry has its work cut out in replacing these consumers with new users. Each company is aware that smokers quickly develop brand loyalty, and so the race is on to hook kids before other companies can get their hands on them. Youth are also a major target for tobacco companies because the younger they get them, the more years of tobacco sales will be achieved before the consumer dies.

In the United States, tobacco use by high school kids is defined as either current use (any use in past 30 days) or frequent use (use on 20 out of the last 30 days). The proportion of high school kids who were current (frequent) cigarette smokers in the US increased from 1991 when it was 27.5% (12.5%) to peak in 1997 at 36.4% (16.7%), before falling to 23% (9.7%) in 2005. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that the increase in youth cigarette smoking throughout the 1990s was reversed from the same year the Master Settlement Agreement was signed (law suit in which states sued tobacco companies for tobacco-caused Medicaid costs). The MSA triggered significant publicity about the harmfulness of tobacco, resulted in a marked increase in tobacco control funding, and also resulted in price increases (which was how the companies easily recouped the money they paid in the settlement).

In 2005 white (non-Hispanic) girls had the highest current cigarette use (27%), followed by white boys (24.9%) and Hispanic boys (24.8%). These rates are much higher than among African American high school kids, of whom only 11.8% of girls and 14% of boys were cigarette smokers.

African American youth have consistently had much lower smoking rates than white youth over the past 25 years, although in the early 1970 their smoking rates were similar to whites. No-one knows what caused such a marked decline in African American youth smoking from the early 70s through to the 1980s and beyond. If you have any idea I’d like to hear it (and note that African American youth were also less likely to use alcohol or illicit drugs than white youth during that same time period).

You can read a full report on the latest data on youth cigarette smoking in the US at:
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About the Author

MA, MAppSci, PhD

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