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Friday, October 5, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Number of new teen smokers drops by a third

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The number of teenagers who start smoking has fallen by a striking one-third in two years, the government reported yesterday.

More than 3,000 teens began smoking each day in 1997, a record high that has been widely cited in the effort to stem tobacco use by young people.

But the number of new teen smokers fell in 1998 and again in 1999, when it reached 2,145 a day, a drop of 33 percent, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, an annual benchmark for drug, alcohol and tobacco use.

Teen drug and alcohol use held steady in 2000, the survey found, a finding consistent with other government research.

On tobacco, the survey found that the number of new smokers of all ages dropped in 1998 and 1999. Teenagers easily remained the most likely people to start smoking.

Experts cited a cultural shift and an increase in the price of cigarettes. But they were hard-pressed to fully explain such a sharp drop in such a short period of time, and they suggested that a third year of data may be needed to confirm the scope of the trend.

Still, they said, this and other surveys make it clear that teen smoking is on the decline.

The drop took place during tough years and bad press for cigarette makers, who faced a spate of government lawsuits over the cost of treating sick smokers, an attempt to impose federal regulation over the industry and the revelation of documents that showed companies were marketing to children and teens.

In 1998, tobacco companies agreed to pay $246 billion to settle lawsuits from state governments and went along with unprecedented new restrictions on advertising and marketing.

That contributed to higher prices. The average price of a pack of cigarettes went from $1.85 in the beginning of 1997 to $2.92 at the end of 1999. Several studies have found that teens are particularly sensitive to the cost.

At the same time, states were stepping up anti-smoking ad campaigns and, beginning in 1999, a few of them were using their money from the settlement to discourage tobacco use. Restaurants were going smoke-free, and local governments were approving anti-smoking laws.

"What you're seeing is sort of a cultural swing here and the kids pick up on it," said Dr. Joseph Autry, acting administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services that conducts the survey.

Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, agreed that a combination of factors has led to the decrease and argues that more states should used their settlement money for tobacco prevention.

"Youth-smoking rates will stop declining and will rise again if tobacco-prevention efforts are not sustained and expanded to more states," he said.

Still, there appears to be a cultural shift under way. Autry remembered that several years ago, it seemed like everyone was smoking. Then, he'd see the smokers on one side of the room and the nonsmokers on the other side. Now, the same room is likely to ban smoking altogether, he said.

Pinpointing the moment of change is difficult. "It's a cumulative effect, the result of a whole bunch of things coming together," he said.

He also credited efforts to hammer the unattractive nature of cigarettes.

"We're finding that kids are much more aware of not only the health effects of tobacco products but that if you smoke, your clothes smell bad; if you smoke, your breath smells bad."

The survey, released yesterday, found that teens still make up the majority of new smokers: 57 percent in 1999.

Another 36 percent of new smokers were ages 18 to 25 when they started, with fewer than 10 percent starting at later ages.

The dramatic decline in new teen smokers came after an equally sharp rise. In 1992, there were fewer than 2,000 new teen smokers each day, a number that climbed by 50 percent in just three years.

The survey also found that in 2000:

• On drugs: 9.7 percent of youth ages 12 to 17 reported using illegal drugs over the preceding 30 days, about the same as in 1999. Overall, 6.3 percent of all Americans older than 12 had used drugs in 2000, or about 14 million Americans.

• On alcohol: 27.5 percent of people 12 to 17 reported drinking in the past month, about the same as in 1999. Nearly half of all Americans drink, another steady figure. But the number of people of all ages who say they had driven under the influence of alcohol fell from 10.9 to 10 percent.

The survey included interviews with more than 71,000 people ages 12 and older. Results on when people began smoking is based on two years' of data, meaning information on the number of new smokers in 2000 is not yet available.

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