When your parents were kids, they may have seen cigarettes advertised on TV by a cartoon character named Joe Camel.

When they ate out, went shopping or flew on a plane, they likely saw lots of people smoking. They may even have spent their allowance on candy cigarettes or been given them as Halloween treats.

Your parents probably did not learn in school -- as you do -- how bad smoking is for you, even if you're not the one doing it.

This shift against smoking began in earnest 40 years ago, after the government issued its first big report on the effects of smoking. It found that smoking causes severe health problems, including crippling lung disorders and even death.

The next year, 1965, cigarette makers were required to put health warnings on their packages. Other actions followed: Radio and TV ads for cigarettes were banned, cartoon pitchmen such as Joe Camel were ditched, smoke-free places became popular, stores were told to stop selling tobacco to kids, and anti-smoking programs were launched in schools.

Those efforts have had some success. In 1965 when the campaign started, more than four of every 10 adults in the United States smoked. By 2003, slightly more than two in 10 did. Smoking rates are also dropping among those under 18, but not at a pace rapid enough to meet the 16 percent national goal set for 2010 for high school students.

So, smoking -- especially among youths -- remains a big concern. Here's why:

* Each day more than 4,000 kids, some as young as fifth-graders, try their first cigarette.

* Nearly one-fourth of U.S. teens are smokers by the time they leave high school.

* Overall, 4.5 million kids under 18 smoke regularly, including 10 percent of eighth-graders.

* Among adults who smoke, more than

90 percent started doing so as kids.

Why are these numbers alarming? Because tobacco contains nicotine, and nicotine is addictive, meaning it's very hard to quit smoking once you start.

And why might you want to quit (or, perhaps, never start)? Because of the health risks. Smoking causes lung cancer and heart disease, even among young people. It reduces the ability to fight illness. It irritates the eyes and throat and makes your breath smell bad. It can also lead to tooth decay and gum problems.

Smokeless (spit) tobacco, used by 11 percent of high school boys, has its own health risks, including diseases of the mouth.

You don't even have to be a smoker to suffer from smoking. When others light up around you, you are affected, too. The health risks from "passive smoking" include lung cancer, heart disease, breathing problems (including asthma) and eye and ear infections. [See story at right.]

There is some good news to report, however. The percentage of students in grades 8, 10 and 12 who smoke is lower now than it has been in the last 12 years, says the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a group that supports anti-smoking efforts. The use of spit tobacco among youths also is down a little.

Whether these trends will continue is uncertain. Tobacco companies spend about $30 million each day to sell their cigarettes. Recently they've begun promoting chocolate- and fruit-flavored brands, and using hip-hop images to get more customers. The companies deny that they're out to hook kids, but others say that's exactly what they're up to, and should be stopped.

Cigarette companies hope that the kids of today will be the smokers of tomorrow, the anti-smoking groups say. Whether that happens is up to you.

-- Marylou Tousignant

Are kids targeted as future smokers? Candy cigarettes are still available. But anti-smoking ads, below, have popped up throughout the world, replacing once-popular salesmen such

as Joe Camel, left.