Matthew L. Myers, president of Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, shares his thoughts about America's progress in bringing an end to youth tobacco use, and what additional steps can be taken.
The United States has made incredible progress in reducing youth tobacco use so that the goal of a tobacco-free generation, which once seemed far-fetched, is now realistically within our reach. But the fight against tobacco is far from over, and continued progress is not inevitable. It will require strong leadership and commitment from all segments of our society. CVS Health (one of DiversityInc's 25 Noteworthy Companies) has provided an amazing example by ending tobacco sales and launching the Be The First initiative.
We have made enormous progress. Since peaking at 36.4 percent in 1997, the smoking rate among high school students has fallen by 70 percent to a record-low 10.8 percent in 2015. But more than 1.8 million high school students are still current smokers. Every day, another 2,500 kids smoke their first cigarette, starting down a path that often leads to addiction, disease and premature death.
The problem isn't just cigarettes. Our progress is being undermined by the popularity of other tobacco products, including electronic cigarettes, cigars and hookah (water pipes). Youth use of e-cigarettes has skyrocketed, and nearly a quarter of high school students used e-cigarettes in 2015. High school boys now smoke cigars at higher rates than cigarettes. These products are sold in an assortment of sweet flavors like cotton candy and fruit punch that appeal to kids.
We must redouble efforts to prevent kids from using any tobacco product. The Food and Drug Administration recently took an important step when it issued new rules for e-cigarettes and cigars, including a national prohibition on sales to kids.
We must fully implement proven strategies that prevent kids from using tobacco: Raise the price of tobacco products. Make all workplaces and public places smoke-free. Conduct strong tobacco prevention programs that include hard-hitting advertising campaigns. Restrict tobacco marketing that appeals to kids.
We also need innovative new approaches. The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is supporting one highly promising strategy – prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to anyone under 21. We know that about 95 percent of adult smokers begin smoking before they turn 21, so if young people can get to 21 without smoking, most never will. Already, the states of California and Hawaii and over 185 localities across the country have adopted Tobacco 21.
Despite our progress, tobacco use is still the No. 1 preventable cause of death in our country. It kills nearly half a million Americans and costs us $170 billion in health care bills each year. We know the vast majority of smokers start as teens or earlier. By achieving our shared goal of a tobacco-free generation, we can save countless lives and create a healthier future for our children, our communities and our nation.
The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is proud to partner with CVS Health in its Be The First initiative to create the first tobacco-free generation.