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POV: Much left to do in fight against youth tobacco use

Editor's note: The author is a project coordinator with the Capital District Tobacco-Free Coalition.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced a series of measures to further reduce youth smoking, generating a flurry of national attention. One of the proposals takes aim at a leading contributor to youth tobacco use – young people’s exposure to tobacco marketing.

New York state is a national leader in reducing the incidence of youth tobacco use. We boast the highest tax in the nation on tobacco products, the single most effective way to discourage young people from smoking. New York was an early adopter of strong clean indoor air laws, further contributing to a decrease in smoking rates among middle and high school students over the past decade to a level significantly lower than the national average.

That’s all good news for New York’s kids. But for the 12.6 percent of high school students who currently smoke and the 21,000 youth under the age of 18 who are predicted to start this year – one third of whom will die prematurely from tobacco use – we need to do more.

Every year in New York state, 25,400 adults die of smoking-caused diseases. That’s 25,400 fewer customers every year that tobacco companies need to “replace” with new smokers in order to stay profitable. The problem is that 90 percent of first-time smokers are under the age of 18 – not even old enough to legally use tobacco – and 99 percent are under age 26. If you don’t become a “new customer” of tobacco products by age 26, you almost certainly never will.

So when tobacco companies spend more than $1 million per day in New York state to promote their products in retail stores, the audience they’re reaching is young people who are too young to legally smoke and too young to fully appreciate the dangers of tobacco use and addiction.

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