Smoking among U.S. high school students has dropped to its lowest level in a decade, the government said Thursday, crediting steep cigarette taxes and school programs that discourage youngsters from taking up the habit.
Just 28.5 percent of high-schoolers in a nationwide survey last year reported they had smoked a cigarette in the previous month -- down from 36.4 percent five years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
The rate is the lowest since 1991, when 27.5 percent of high school students said they smoked. The figure had climbed for most of the 1990s before reversing in 1999.
"This is terrific news," said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "This is dramatic evidence that the combination of tax increases and prevention programs are the equivalent of a vaccine."
At Central High School in Cape Girardeau, the anti-smoking message doesn't seem to be getting through, said Mark Ruark, assistant principal.
"There's an awful lot of smoking off campus after school," Ruark said. "When I hear national statistics like that about high schoolers and smoking, I'm surprised."
The difference between local observations and national statistics simply might be a matter of location, Ruark said.
"Sometimes the Midwest is behind national trends," he said. "We might not see those kind of numbers here for two or three years."
Central and all other buildings in the city's school district have been smoke free for about 10 years, which pushes anyone who wants to smoke off campus. That includes teachers.
"I can remember for the first few years, some of them would have to get in their cars and drive around the block if they wanted to smoke," Ruark said.
The only downward trend Ruark has noticed is fewer disciplinary actions being taken against students for smoking at school during the past two years. However, he expects this to increase next year at the new high school building, since students won't be able to go off campus during school hours.
The average retail price of cigarettes jumped 70 percent from December 1997 to May 2001, and CDC analysts said studies by health economists show that high cost deters many youngsters from smoking.
Many states are pushing for even higher taxes on cigarettes, particularly as they look for ways to raise money in a tough economy. State taxes range from 2 1/2 cents a pack in Virginia to $1.50 in New York.
The CDC said high-schoolers also appear to be getting the anti-smoking message pushed by national media campaigns, and school-based anti-tobacco programs also appear to be sinking in.
National health officials are looking for ways to capitalize on the statistical success in coming years. They want the high school smoking rate to be much lower -- 16 percent at most -- by 2010.
"The rates are starting to turn around, but we need a continued effort," said Dr. Terry Pechacek of CDC's Office on Smoking and Health.
In the latest data, smoking among freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors all showed sharp declines from the highs of the 1990s. Seniors still said they smoke most often -- 35.2 percent -- and freshmen the least, at 23.9 percent.
In the survey, an anonymous questionnaire given to 13,601 students, 63.9 percent of high school students said they had taken at least one puff of a cigarette in their lifetimes. That was down from 70.2 percent in 1997.
And 13.8 percent said they were frequent smokers, defined as having smoked on at least 20 days in the previous month. That figure was 16.7 percent in 1997.
In 1998, tobacco companies agreed to pay $246 billion to settle lawsuits from states and accepted unprecedented restrictions on advertising and marketing. Some states use money from the settlement to pay for anti-smoking programs.
Mark Smith, a spokesman for tobacco giant Brown & Williamson, said the figures are good news. But he denied that raising cigarette prices contributes to a decline in teen-age smoking. He said that when prices go up, teens simply turn to other places to find cheaper cigarettes.
"Kids, unfortunately, are not price-sensitive," he said. "They can afford to buy a $100 pair of sneakers. There's much more disposable income in the hands of children that ever before."
But the CDC's Pechacek said price increases are particularly effective at deterring first-time smokers -- youngsters who may have borrowed or stolen a first cigarette but cannot afford a full pack or carton.
Boys in high school were more likely to smoke than girls -- 29.2 percent, compared with 27.7 percent. Girls were slightly more likely to smoke the last time the survey was taken, in 1999.
And whites were much more likely to say they smoke -- 31.9 percent, compared with just 14.7 percent of black students. Among Hispanic students, 26.6 percent said they smoked.
News editor Tony Hall contributed to this report.