ATLANTA -- Smoking among U.S. high school students has fallen to about one in five -- the lowest level in at least a generation -- in a drop-off the government attributes to anti-smoking campaigns and higher cigarette taxes.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday that nearly 22 percent of high school students said they were smokers in 2003. That is down from more than 36 percent in 1997, and the lowest level since the CDC began keeping track in 1975.
The drop was so dramatic that for the first time in more than two decades, the percentage of high school smokers is lower than the percentage of adult smokers. That was seen as an especially encouraging sign by the government.
In fact, the CDC study found that anti-tobacco efforts have been successful across the board, from curbing the number of first-time smokers to reducing the ranks of the heaviest smokers.
"We are reaching all the youth. If we can stop youth from becoming addicted smokers, eventually we can stop this epidemic," said Terry Pechanek, associate director of science for the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health. "We're making the progress we've been working toward for the last 40 years."
Dr. John Banzhaf III, who helped mastermind lawsuits against the tobacco industry, said the study illustrates "probably the most dramatic progress which has been made in terms of any public health problem, at least in recent memory."
"The question would be whether we have the political will to continue to do it," said Banzhaf, executive director of Action on Smoking and Health and professor of public interest law at George Washington University Law School.
The CDC said that anti-tobacco efforts such as TV ads and school campaigns have been highly successful.
Some of the programs were funded by the $206 billion settlement that tobacco companies and states reached in 1998.
Another big reason fewer teenagers are lighting up is the cost of a pack of cigarettes, the CDC said. The agency said cigarette prices went up 90 percent from 1997 to 2003, mostly because of tax increases.
Students were classified as current smokers if they had lit up in the preceding 30 days.
The study found that the percentage of heavy smokers -- those who lit up 20 days or more per month -- fell to 9.7 percent from 16.8 percent in 1999.
Also, fewer students are trying cigarettes: A little more than 58 percent of students in 2003 said they had tried smoking, down from more than 70 percent in 1999.
Still, the government noted that other studies recently have warned that the rate of decline in student smoking may be slowing.
The CDC blamed that on several factors, including more depictions of smoking in movies and a near doubling of spending on tobacco advertising from cigarette makers ($5.7 billion in 1997 to $11.2 billion in 2001). Also, states are spending less money from the tobacco settlement on smoking prevention.
Trend-setting states that had well-funded programs and subsequent decreases in student smoking now have had those programs crippled by budget cuts, causing a rise in student smoking rates in those areas, said Matt Barry of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Philip Morris spokeswoman Jennifer Golisch said the nation's No. 1 cigarette maker is "very happy" about the study's results. "As a manufacturer of a product intended for adults, we believe we have a responsibility to help prevent kids from smoking," she said.
Golisch said Philip Morris does not place its cigarettes in movies or on TV, though some filmmakers or TV producers have used Philip Morris products without its permission. She also said the company is spending less on cigarette advertising, in part because of restrictions contained in the tobacco settlement.
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