Cigarette smoking rates may have peaked among younger teens

January 18, 2007

EDITORS: For further information, contact the principal investigator of the Monitoring the Future Study, Lloyd D. Johnston at (734) 763-5043 (office).

ANN ARBOR—After six years of steady increase, cigarette smoking among American eighth-grade students has leveled, and may even have begun to decline, according to the most recent national survey from the Monitoring the Future study. There also is evidence that smoking rates among the nation’s 10th-graders may be leveling. Only among the 12th-graders is there clear evidence of a further increase in smoking, continuing an upward march which began five years ago.

University of Michigan social psychologists Lloyd Johnston, Jerald Bachman, and Patrick O’Malley, senior research scientists at the U-M Institute for Social Research, are releasing the results of their 23rd national survey of high school seniors and seventh national survey of eighth- and 10th-grade students. In all, some 51,000 students in 429 public and private secondary schools from across the coterminous United States participated in the 1997 survey. Confidential self-administered questionnaires were administered to the students in their regular classrooms by U-M research staff. The study is funded through a series of research grants awarded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one of the National Institutes of Health.

“Cigarette smoking constitutes the single largest threat to the health and longevity of this generation of young Americans,” states Johnston, “which makes the substantial increases in their smoking rates over the past five or six years of particular concern. The fact that in 1997 the youngest teens may finally be taking the anti-smoking message to heart certainly is encouraging, although this year’s improvement?assuming that it is real–does not begin to recover the ground lost over the prior five years. Further, the smoking rates among high school seniors are still increasing quite sharply.”

During the period 1992 to 1996, the proportion of eighth-graders (most of whom are 13- or 14-years-old) who reported smoking daily in the 30-day period preceding the survey increased by half?from 7.0 percent in 1992 to 10.4 percent in 1996. In 1997 this rate fell to 9.0 percent. Among 10th-graders, daily smoking also rose by half, from 12.3 percent in 1992 to 18.3 percent in 1996, and remained virtually unchanged in 1997 (at 18.0 percent).

At the 12th-grade level, daily smoking rose less in proportional terms between 1992 and 1996?from 17.2 percent to 22.2 percent?but in 1997 it continued to rise significantly to 24.6 percent. This represents a 43 percent increase in the daily smoking rate for 12th-graders in the last five years. While this year’s decline in smoking among eighth-graders is statistically significant, the investigators say they would like to see one more year of data before they conclude that it is not a chance occurrence?particularly given that there is no decline in other grades. But they also note that it is not unusual to observe different trends among different age groups, because much of the change in smoking rates can be explained by differences in early smoking initiation rates by each birth cohort. Once a birth cohort has established a higher or lower initiation rate than other cohorts, it tends to maintain that relative position throughout the life cycle, most likely because of the addictive nature of smoking. So when 10th-graders in 1995 achieved higher smoking rates than preceding 10th-grade classes, they tended to retain those higher smoking rates as they grew older. Now that they are 12th-graders two years later, they still have higher smoking rates than the preceding 12th-grade classes, and thus smoking continues to climb at the 12th-grade level.

(For a table outlining what is discussed in the above two paragraphs, click here.)

“That is why the possible turnaround in smoking among eighth-graders could be so important,” states Johnston, “because lower smoking rates at this age likely will result in lower smoking rates for that class cohort for the rest of their lives.

“Still, it is sobering to consider that today, by the end of high school, a quarter of our young people already are smoking daily, and that most of them will continue to do so. Additionally, another 12 percent of the seniors smoke occasionally but not yet daily, and we know from our earlier research that many of them also will become daily smokers within a few years of graduation.

“Finally, it should be kept in mind that these surveys cover only those young people who remain in school. Based on these several facts, it is hard to escape the conclusion that an exceptional number of these young people are going to be regular smokers by the time they become young adults, and it is estimated that as many as a third of those who do become chronic smokers will die prematurely from the ravages eventually brought on by their smoking.”

The longer-term increases in proportions who smoke have been observed in virtually all demographic subgroups, according to the investigators. (See Tables 2 and 3.)

Attitudes and Beliefs. One encouraging sign is that over the past two years there has been some upward shift in all three grades in the proportions of students who see a “great risk” of harm associated with being a pack-a-day smoker (Figure 3), and this year there was some increase in the proportions of eighth- and 10th-graders who expressed personal disapproval of pack-a-day smoking (Figure 2). “Since these attitudes and beliefs about cigarette smoking had been weakening for some years, this is a welcome reversal,” comments Johnston.

Availability. Cigarettes remain readily available to American teen-agers. Despite the fact that they are only 13- or 14-years-old, some three-quarters (76 percent) of the eighth-graders say they could get cigarettes “fairly-” or “very easily” if they want some, and 90 percent of the 10th-graders (who are 15- or 16-years-old) say the same. These levels of availability are much the same as they were five years ago (Figure 4).

The study, titled “Monitoring the Future,” is also widely known as the National High School Senior Survey. It has been conducted under a series of investigator-initiated research grants from the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Surveys have been carried out each year since 1975 by the U-M Survey Research Center. In 1997, the seniors comprised about 16,000 students nationwide, selected to be representative of all seniors in the continental United States. They completed self-administered questionnaires given to them in the classrooms by U-M personnel in the spring of the year. Beginning in 1991, similar surveys of nationally representative samples of eighth- and 10th-graders have been conducted annually. The 1997 eighth-grade sample contained about 19,000 students, and the 10th-grade sample contained about 16,000 students. In all, approximately 51,000 students in 429 public and private secondary schools were surveyed in 1997.

2Figure 3Figure 4Monitoring the Future