Four of the nation’s largest tobacco companies went to court last month to try to block graphic health warning labels that are scheduled to begin appearing on cigarette packages next fall. With hundreds of thousands of young Americans annually developing deadly tobacco addictions before their 18th birthdays, this would be a huge setback for our children’s health.

Our country has made significant progress in reducing tobacco use since the first surgeon general’s report linking smoking to cancer in 1964. But in recent years, youth smoking rates that had been falling have stalled.

Today alone, nearly 3,500 children, in big cities and small towns across America, will try their first cigarette. About 850 of them will become daily smokers. And almost 300 will eventually die prematurely because of a deadly tobacco addiction that started before they were eligible to vote.

What can be done to protect our children? A good first step would be continuing to implement the bipartisan tobacco control legislation signed in 2009 by President Obama that established the graphic warning labels.

Selected based on rigorous research, the labels are to appear on all cigarette packages and advertisements beginning in the fall of 2012 to provide a clear and factual picture of the risks associated with smoking. They’ll warn Americans of all ages about the addictiveness of cigarettes and their serious health consequences, which include stroke and heart disease.

These are some of the same messages conveyed now by written warning labels. But experts tell us that these images and the revised warning statements are far more effective at grabbing people’s attention and getting the information to sink in.

Just as important, the law has banned many of the clever strategies tobacco companies used to market their products to youth. As part of a 1998 court settlement, tobacco companies agreed to end their youth advertising campaigns. Yet we know that young smokers today still disproportionately use the most heavily marketed brands.

Under the law, cigarette companies are forbidden from using backdoor marketing tactics to try to recruit youths. The cellphone jewelry and berry-flavored lip balm that RJ Reynolds used to promote its new Camel No. 9 brand in 2007 have been prohibited. Also banned are cigarette brand sponsorships of concerts and sporting events, and selling cigarettes in chocolate, vanilla or strawberry flavors.

Overall, these rules will make it much harder for the tobacco industry to use its nearly $10 billion marketing budget to reach and recruit child smokers.

Of course, tobacco use is a serious health danger for Americans of all ages. In recent years, smoking rates have stopped falling for adults as well as youth. And tobacco remains not only the No. 1 cause of preventable death in the United States, killing 443,000 people a year, but also a huge drain on our economy, costing nearly $200 billion a year in lost productivity and added health-care costs — more than the economies of New Mexico, West Virginia and Maine combined.

That’s why the Obama administration is also doing more to help the 70 percent of adult smokers who say they want to quit. Thanks to last year’s health-care law, all Americans in new health plans can get smoking cessation counseling without paying a co-pay or deductible. In addition, Medicare has changed its policy to begin covering voluntary tobacco cessation counseling for seniors before they get sick. And each of the new graphic warning labels will include a toll-free number, 1-800-QUIT-NOW, for people who want to kick the habit.

In the end, the most effective way to prevent tobacco addiction is to stop people from starting. And we know that most smokers start young; nearly 90 percent of adult daily smokers smoked their first cigarette before their 18th birthday. As a 1981 internal tobacco company document put it: “Today’s teenager is tomorrow’s potential regular customer.”

We can’t afford to continue watching hundreds of thousands of our children develop a dangerous and preventable addiction before they’ve even entered adulthood. That’s why the Obama administration will continue to take all appropriate steps to reduce the marketing, sale and appeal of tobacco products to America’s youth.

The writer is secretary of health and human services.