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Youth smoking is focus of new Surgeon General report

By William Hudson, CNN
updated 6:08 AM EST, Thu March 8, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Each day, 1,000 people under age 18 pick up daily habit, HHS secretary says
  • "Evidence is suggestive" that packaging changes appeal to kids, report says
  • Studies show the once decline in youth smoking has slowed in recent years
  • Report highlights role states can play in prevention programs

(CNN) -- Tobacco companies' advertising and promotional campaigns may influence young adults and adolescents to start smoking, says a new report from the U.S. Surgeon General.

The report stops short of saying that tobacco companies have definitely changed their packaging in ways that increase their appeal among adolescents. "The evidence is suggestive," but not conclusive, says the report.

Studies show that the once-steady decline in youth smoking has slowed in recent years.

"Each day in the United States, over 3,800 young people under 18 years of age smoke their first cigarette, and over 1,000 youth under age 18 become daily cigarette smokers," says Secretary Kathleen Sebelius in the report's opening comments.

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The 900-page report also highlights the role state tobacco control programs could play in preventing youth smoking, noting that in fiscal year 2011 only two states funded tobacco prevention programs at CDC's minimum recommendation amount of $15 to $20 per capita.

This is the only the second time the Surgeon General has issued a report specifically on youth smoking. In 1994, the Surgeon General first raised concerns about how cigarette advertising raised the risk of young people smoking and how community-based efforts can reduce "adolescent use of tobacco" -- similar to the new report.

This new Surgeon General report describes how some tobacco companies' advertising practices are directed at younger people. For example, they say the companies are "strategically locating tobacco-related marketing materials where young children will be exposed to them" in convenience stores.

On Monday, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids along with the American Heart Association released a report called "Deadly Alliance" detailing how tobacco companies market their products at convenience stores alongside safer products for children, like candy.

"The Food and Drug Administration is in full enforcement and our company is in full compliance with all of the regulation around how products are sold and marketed," said Ken Garcia, spokesman for Altria, the parent company of Philip Morris USA -- the largest tobacco company in the United States.

"It's highly restricted, highly regulated, and between us, the industry, as well as the federal government who regulates us, we're all working for the same cause, to make sure that kids can't access tobacco products."

The role of menthol cigarettes and their appeal to younger smokers is also discussed in the Surgeon General's report as well. It says, "tobacco companies have long known of menthol's ability to mask harshness associated with cigarette smoke, increase the ease of smoking, and provide a cooling sensation that appeals to many smokers, particular new smokers."

Advocates agree menthols are especially appealing to youth smokers because menthol acts as an anesthetic, making it easier to inhale and altering the taste, thereby making them more palatable to young smokers.

Last year an FDA advisory committee concluded that "removal of menthol cigarettes from the marketplace would benefit public health in the United States."

"We do not believe the science supports a ban on menthol, but that is something that's in the purview of the FDA," says Garcia.

Congress granted the FDA the authority to regulate tobacco products in 2009. During that same year the agency only banned the sale of flavored cigarettes, not other flavored tobacco products.

"It's critically important that parents realize that the tobacco industry's marketing is still impacting our children everyday. That makes it critically important that they sit down with their children and talk face to face with them," says Matt Myers, President of the advocacy group "Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids."

"But it's also important that they become involved in their community," Myers says. "The way to reduce tobacco use among American kids is if parents get involved and demand that states fund comprehensive tobacco control programs."

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