Cigarette smoking among American teens

April 9, 2007

ANN ARBOR—The proportion of teens who are current cigarette smokers continued to decline gradually in 1999, according to the 25th national survey of the Monitoring the Future Study, conducted at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR) under grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Cigarette smoking peaked in 1996 among eighth- and 10th-graders nationwide, and in 1997 among 12th-graders. Since those peak years, there has been a gradual decline in smoking rates, which continued in 1999.

Among eighth-graders, most of whom are 13 or 14 years old, 17.5 percent said they had smoked one or more cigarettes in the past 30 days (defined as “current smoking”), down by one-sixth from a peak of 21 percent in 1996. Among 10th-graders, most of whom are 15 or 16 years old, 25.7 percent reported smoking in the past 30 days, down nearly one-sixth from the peak of 30.4 percent in 1996. Among 12th-graders, most of whom are 17 or 18 years old, the decline has been very modest—from 36.5 percent in the peak year of 1997 to 34.6 percent in 1999. This represents only about a 5 percent drop in their smoking rate from their recent peak. Because these declines are gradual, in 1999 only the one-year decline among eighth-graders reached statistical significance. The one-year decline was just short of significance among 10th-graders, but the three-year declines in both eighth- and 10th-grades are highly significant.

“Despite these recent improvements, over one-third of today’s young people are active smokers by the time they leave high school. In fact, more than one in every six is an active smoker as early as eighth-grade,” observes Lloyd D. Johnston, the study’s principal investigator and a research scientist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR). “These rates are still well above smoking rates in the early 90s, when teen smoking began to increase substantially.”

Rates of daily smoking are also down from their peak levels (in 1996 for eighth- and 10th-graders and in 1997 for 12th-graders) but did not show much improvement in 1999 specifically, according to Johnston and his collaborators, Jerald G. Bachman and Patrick M. O’Malley, both at the ISR.

“The great majority of eighth- and 10th-grade students today say that they expect to complete college eventually, and it is in this large college-bound sector that we see most of the decline in smoking so far,” reports Johnston. “There has been rather little improvement in the lower grades among the non-college bound, who traditionally have far higher smoking rates.”

Consistent with this fact, most of the recent improvement in eighth- and 10th-grade smoking has been concentrated among children from more educated families. Traditionally there were large smoking differences associated with social class, as measured by the parents’ education level, notes Johnston. But those differences had narrowed considerably by 1990, according to the long-term data for high school seniors. Now those social class differences appear to be re-emerging.

At 12th-grade there has been very little decline so far either among the college-bound or the non-college bound, although both groups have current smoking rates below their recent peak levels.

Attitudes and Beliefs about Smoking

Since 1995 there has been a steady, though gradual, increase in the proportion of students at all three grade levels who see pack-a-day smoking as carrying a “great risk” of harm for the user. [The question asks how much “people risk harming themselves (physically or in other ways) if they smoke one or more packs of cigarettes per day.”] (See Figure 3.)

“Certainly this is a move in the right direction,” Johnston comments, “but among the eighth-graders, even today only 55 percent think there is a great risk of harm associated with pack-a-day smoking.”

Disapproval of cigarette smoking also has risen a bit since 1996 in the case of the eighth- and 10th-graders, and since 1997 in the case of the 12th-graders. (Figure 4.) The researchers believe that the changes in perceived risk and disapproval in recent years may be attributable to the policy debate that has been raging in the country. Also, a number of states have conducted anti-smoking ad campaigns aimed at young people.

Availability of Cigarettes

While the great majority of young teens feel that they could get cigarettes “fairly easily” or “very easily” if they wanted them (72 percent of eighth-graders and 88 percent of 10th-graders), reported accessibility has been falling since 1996, particularly among the eighth-graders. (Figure 5.) “This suggests that the efforts by federal and state governments are starting to have an effect,” comments Johnston. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been assisting states in monitoring retailer behavior and levying penalties on retailers who sell to underage buyers.

The “Monitoring the Future” study is conducted at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research and has been supported since its inception under a series of investigator-initiated research grants from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, one of the National Institutes of Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Annual surveys of high school seniors began in 1975, and annual surveys of eighth- and 10th-grade students were added, beginning in 1991. At each grade level students are drawn to be representative of all students in public and private schools in the coterminous United States. They complete self-administered, optically-scanned questionnaires given to them in their classrooms in the spring of the year by U-M personnel. In 1999 the sample sizes for eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-grades, respectively, were 17,300, 13,900, and 14,100. In all, about 45,000 students located in 433 secondary schools participated in the study.

Johnston and his collaboratorsNational Institutes of Health