Underage Smoking in Va. Drops

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 14, 2008

RICHMOND -- The number of children in Virginia who smoke cigarettes has plummeted in this decade, according to a statewide survey released last week.

The percentage of high school students in the state who smoke has declined from 29 in 2001 to 15.5 in 2007, according to the Virginia Tobacco Settlement Foundation. The state falls well below the national average of 19.2 percent.

"For a state like Virginia, which has been a tobacco-growing state, that is very, very impressive," Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said.

Kaine and other officials credit the Virginia Tobacco Settlement Foundation for spending millions of dollars on education, marketing and other programs to curb youth smoking.

The foundation provides grants to schools, nonprofit groups, and community- and faith-based organizations; advertises on radio, television and the Internet; gives research money to state universities, including George Mason University; and works with the state to determine whether retailers are selling tobacco to underage buyers.

Foundation officials claim to prevent 73,000 children each year from becoming smokers, which they say saves the state $1.25 billion in smoking-related health costs a year.

"We are thrilled that tobacco use among Virginia's youth continues to be on the decline," Foundation Executive Director Marty Kilgore said. "The [survey] shows that tobacco prevention works and that Virginia's kids are choosing healthy lifestyles. However, we must remain ever vigilant in our goal of eliminating underage smoking."

David M. DeBiasi, director of advocacy and public education at the American Lung Association of Virginia, said the decline in smoking rates shows that smoking cessation and prevention programs must start in middle and high schools. Almost 90 percent of adult smokers start smoking before age 18, he said.

The percentage of middle school students in Virginia who smoke has declined from 11 percent in 2001 to 4.6 percent in 2007, according to the survey.

"Virginia has shown remarkable progress over the past two years in its efforts to keep kids from smoking, and these new results provide additional evidence that tobacco prevention is a good investment for states," said William V. Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

More than 2,600 public middle school and high school students were surveyed during the 2007-08 school year for the statewide study, conducted by the foundation, Virginia Commonwealth University and the Community Health Research Initiative. Students were asked about topics including tobacco use; accessibility of tobacco products; attitudes toward tobacco use and advertising; and other factors such as secondhand smoke exposure.

The survey also found that 7.6 percent of high school students and 2.5 percent of middle school students report using dip, chewing tobacco or snuff.

As part of a settlement agreement between 46 states and the nation's tobacco manufacturers in 1998, Virginia is expected to receive about $4 billion over 25 years. The foundation receives 10 percent of the money for prevention, and the rest is spent on economic development and health care in the state.


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