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The kids are still smoking, and we're not doing much about it

Anthony Posey

Youth smoking is re-emerging as a concern in Washington. The US Surgeon General came to Seattle this week to give a pep talk to anti-smoking campaigners, who are coping with three years of drastic budget cuts.

If it seems like smoking is already on a perpetual decline, that's a mis-perception, said assistant Surgeon General Patrick O’Carroll, in an interview:

“Some of the successes we had kind of stalled out in the last decade. We were reducing rates very well, and now they’ve sort of plateaued.”

In Washington, the overall smoking rate is about 15% of the public. But, it’s not the office workers huddled near the loading dock that worry the health experts. They really care about teenagers and young adults.

“It’s worth recognizing that just about nobody takes up smoking after age 25. And something like 9 of 10 adults who smoke say they started before 18. So, no matter what is said about who [tobacco companies] are actually marketing to, it’s young people that are picking up this habit,” says O'Carroll, the northwest regional administrator for US Health and Human Services.

Tobacco companies have come up with creative new ways to attract smokers. In recent years, they’ve offered fruit flavored cigarettes, and mini-cigars that look like cigarettes.

With serious budget cuts in Washington there are no statewide anti-smoking advertisements or education campaigns. That’s all been cut.

History shows – in states like Florida, Massachusetts and California – that when anti-smoking campaigns are canceled, more teens do start smoking. Currently, about one-in-five high school seniors in Washington experiments with cigarettes. That's lower than a decade ago, but about the same for the past few years.

The Surgeon General released a detailed report on "youth smoking" earlier this spring.

On the brighter side, more college campuses are going smoke-free, and some college and high-school students have taken it on themselves to lead anti-smoking crusades at their own schools.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.