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    What America Thinks
    Tobacco Takes Another Hit

    By Richard Morin
    Washington Post Polling Director
    Monday, January 11, 1999

    Everywhere you look, Big Tobacco is on the run – at least for the moment. Inside the courtroom, the tobacco industry agreed last year to settle legal claims filed against it in state courts.

    In state legislatures across the country, lawmakers are debating – and approving – tough new laws limiting the sale and use of tobacco products.

    And behind the high school gym, tobacco apparently is losing ground as well. Teenage smoking is in decline after years of steady increases, according to the latest survey of teens conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan.

    The poll found that smoking had declined in all three age groups in the study, part of the Monitoring the Future project that first began tracking smoking rates in high school seniors in 1975.

    In the latest survey of nearly 50,000 teenagers, researchers found that the proportion of students who said they had smoked in the month preceding the survey stood at 19.1 percent among eighth-graders, down 1.9 percentage points from last year. The decline was even greater among 10th-graders: 27.6 percent reported smoking in the past month, a decline of 2.8 percentage points.

    Smoking among high school seniors also fell, but the decline was smaller than among younger teens. Just over a third – 35.1 percent – said they smoked sometime during the previous month, down 1.4 percentage points from the 1997 survey.

    "Despite these modest improvements, there still remain very high rates of smoking among American teens," says Lloyd D. Johnston, principal investigator for the study and a research scientist at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. "Nearly one in five eighth-graders smokes, more than one in four 10th-graders. Indeed, over one-third of American students smoke by the time they leave high school. We still have a long way to go just to get back to the unacceptably high rates of smoking that existed at the beginning of the 1990s."

    Researchers say they were concerned that the youngest teens in the study – those in the eighth grade – were the least likely to see the harm in smoking. Little more than half of the eighth-graders – 54 percent – said they saw "great risk" of harm in smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. "That's virtually a right-or-wrong answer, and nearly half of these 13- and 14-year-olds get it wrong," Johnson said in a statement released with the survey results. "By 12th grade, 71 percent of the students see 'great risk' in pack-a-day smoking, but by then the horse may already be out of the barn – many are already smoking."

    Still, the modest declines in teen smoking are particularly good news because they represent a clear break in a distressing trend. Since 1990, smoking among teenagers had increased every year. This year, the turnaround in smoking was detected among boys and girls in all four regions of the country, as well as among all socioecnomic groups.

    "Early indications of a turnaround were evident last year," Johnston says. "In 1997, eighth- and 10th-grade students began to show very slight improvements, even though use among 12th-graders was still rising. This year all three grade levels, encompassing young people aged 13 to 15, show some drop in smoking."

    Other encouraging signs: The proportion of students who view smoking as dangerous has been increasing gradually since 1995, and the proportion who disapprove of smoking has gone up since 1996.

    "While these attitudes and beliefs have not always been good predictors of changes in overall usage levels for cigarettes – even though they are for a number of other drugs – they may be contributing to the downturn in smoking we are seeing now," Johnston says.

    There's another explanation, which is somewhat less reassuring. Attempts to pass legislation controlling smoking, though unsuccessful, stimulated large amounts of publicity about the dangers of smoking. This relentlessly "bad press" may have depressed smoking levels – which may rise again as the media move on to other stories. "If that is the case, there is a real question about whether teen smoking will continue to decline in the absence of an intense public debate," Johnston says.

    There are other signs that the tobacco debate may not fade away. Across the country, new laws regulating smoking are in place. They include an Idaho law that went into effect Jan. 1 that requires vendors to keep cigarettes and other tobacco products in locked displays or behind the counter to discourage pilferage and force underage smokers to belly up to the counter to buy cigarettes .

    In the state of Maryland and elsewhere this year, legislators will consider hefty new taxes on cigarettes, cigars and "spit" tobacco. And in Washington, the Clinton administration reportedly will attempt to resurrect teen anti-smoking efforts as well as a tax on tobacco products.

    The public is still engaged, recent surveys suggest. A poll conducted in mid-December by the Pew Center for the People & the Press found that 41 percent of those interviewed said government efforts to regulate the sale of tobacco products were "very important" – identical to the result in June during the height of the congressional fight over the ill-fated tobacco bill.

    Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at morinr@clark.net .

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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