ATLANTA (AP) -- Smoking among high-schoolers dropped slightly last year after climbing for most of the 1990s, the government reports.
Government analysts attribute the drop to teen smoking prevention programs and the higher cost of cigarettes.
"The good news is we appear to be cresting or starting to decline from the epidemic of the 1990s," said Terry Pechacek, associate director of the Office of Smoking and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC said 34.8 percent of high school students in 1999 reported that they had smoked a cigarette in the previous 30 days. That was down from 36.4 percent in 1997 and the first overall decline since the government's first such study, in 1991. The studies are done every two years.
Smoking dropped 17 percent among high school freshmen in what was seen as a particularly encouraging sign.
"That's where we're having the impact," Pechacek said. "It's when they're in that transition period, from having tried a cigarette behind the football stands to daily smoking."
But government analysts also said community efforts are being foiled by tobacco advertising that hooks young smokers.
Tobacco companies said they are complying with the 1998 national tobacco settlement, in which they agreed not to market to young people.
"We do not want kids to smoke, period," said Steve Kottak, a spokesman for Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp., which makes Kools and Lucky Strike cigarettes. "We want to work with our critics on this. All of us share responsibility. Rather than pointing fingers, let's try to solve the problem."
While the smoking rate dropped among high school freshmen -- from 33.4 percent in 1997 to 27.6 percent in 1999 -- it rose among 12th-graders, from 39.6 percent to 42.8 percent.
And the number of frequent smokers, defined as those having smoked at least 20 of the past 30 days, rose to 16.8 percent -- about one-third higher than it was in 1991.
The smoking rate for black high school students dropped from 22.7 percent to 19.7 percent -- markedly lower than the national level. Pechacek said black parents are often stricter than middle-class whites when it comes to tobacco. Smoking among white high school students fell from 39.7 percent to 38.6 percent.
Surgeon General David Satcher said the CDC study offers hope that teen smoking figures have peaked. But he said only 5 percent of American schools have adopted the CDC's guidelines for discouraging smoking.
"Failure to effectively use every intervention strategy available to help our young people would be tragic mistake," Satcher said in a statement. "The time to act is now."
The government wants to cut teen smoking by half, to about 16 percent, by 2010.
Michael Thun, an American Cancer Society epidemiologist, said the statistics show that states should devote more of their tobacco settlement money to community-based prevention programs targeting children.
"The kids have seen smoking as a form of rebellion against adults," Thun said. "What they need to see is that not smoking is a form of not being manipulated by the tobacco companies."
The CDC surveyed more than 15,000 students in 50 states and the District of Columbia to compile the statistics. Researchers cautioned the data could be misleading because they do not include high school dropouts, who are more likely to smoke.
On the Net:
CDC Office on Smoking and Health: http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco
Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corp.: http://www.brownandwilliamson.com
Tobacco Web sites: http://www.umich.edu/(tilde)umtrn/websites.html
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