WASHINGTON — Tobacco use among teenagers jumped by nearly one-third in the last six years, with an especially alarming increase among African American youths, federal health officials reported Thursday.
Rates of tobacco use--including consumption of cigarettes, cigars and smokeless tobacco--rose among high school students from 27.5% in 1991 to 36.4% in 1997, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And smoking among African American teens--once hailed as the one success story in an otherwise bleak picture--has almost doubled, the CDC said.
The latest findings almost certainly will fuel further efforts on Capitol Hill and elsewhere to devise more effective ways to curb tobacco use among young people. On Thursday, the Senate Commerce Committee approved sweeping tobacco legislation that sets specific targets for reducing teen smoking and establishes penalties against the tobacco industry if these goals are not met.
"We're losing ground in the battle to protect our children," said Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala. "There is no excuse for delay. Congress must act promptly to enact comprehensive tobacco-control legislation."
Health officials said the latest trends are especially disturbing, given the attention directed in recent years toward the problem of teenage tobacco use.
"People ask: 'How can this be happening when so much attention is being paid to teen smoking?' " said Dr. Michael Ericksen, director of the CDC's office on smoking and health. "I think the answer is that there has been a lot of rhetoric but virtually no action. I think it's time for the rhetoric to stop and the action to start."
Ericksen and other health officials believe that an approach including product price increases, severe advertising restrictions and beefed-up education through schools, communities and the media would have a noticeable effect on teen tobacco use. "We know what works, but we haven't done what works," Ericksen said.
The Senate Commerce bill contains some of the provisions sought by Ericksen. It would raise the price of cigarettes by $1.10 a pack over the next five years--bringing the cost at the cash register to more than $3 a pack--and would authorize a variety of public education programs aimed at reducing tobacco use.
Lawmakers also are pushing for tobacco companies to voluntarily agree to advertising limits aimed at curbing their access to the teenage market.
The new CDC data, from the 1997 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, measured tobacco use among more than 16,000 U.S. students in grades 9 to 12. The study found that nearly half, or 48.2%, of male students and more than a third, 36%, of female students had reported using cigarettes, cigars or smokeless tobacco during the last month.
The report also found that the consistent decline in smoking once seen among African American youths has reversed sharply in recent years, with the rate increasing by an estimated 80% from 1991 to 1997, from 12.6% to 22.7%.
The prevalence of smoking among African American males nearly doubled during that period, from 14.2% to 28.2%, and increased 54% among females, from 11.3% to 17.4%.
Health officials said they are baffled by the dramatic changes among African American teens, particularly among girls. Since 1976--and until this latest report--smoking had been declining among African American teens while increasing for white youths.
Health officials had believed that many African American youths viewed smoking as "a white thing," Ericksen said. He also said past interviews with teenagers indicated that African American girls regarded smoking "as a liability, which makes them look trashy, unlike white girls, who think it makes them look older and glamorous," Ericksen said.
But now, apparently, "we are losing the only edge we had," he said. He added: "In 1976, there was no difference between blacks and whites. Then there was this huge divergence, and now it has turned around and we don't know what happened."
Among white students, 51.5% of males and 40.8% of females reported using cigarettes, cigars or smokeless tobacco during the last month, the study said.
Also, use of any tobacco product was higher among white high school students (46.8%) than Latinos (36.8%) and African Americans (29.4%), the CDC said.
Cigarette smoking was highest among whites, at 39.7%, having increased from 30.9% in 1991. For Latinos, smoking went from 25.3% in 1991 to 34% last year.
About one in five students reported smoking cigars during the last month. An estimated 3 in 10 male students smoked cigars, compared with about 1 in 10 female students, the agency said.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), one of Capitol Hill's leading tobacco foes, said he believes the study will provide additional motivation for lawmakers to draft a strong tobacco bill.
"I'm optimistic we'll get legislation, since there is a great deal of public concern about the tobacco companies going after our kids," he said. "What worries me is that we've got to be sure the law is a strong one that changes the way the tobacco companies do business."
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who also favors tough restrictions on tobacco companies, called the CDC report "a painful reminder of the marketing power of the tobacco industry and the need to pass tough, flexible legislation to keep the closest possible tabs on their efforts."
In a statement, the CDC said the study "provides clear evidence that teenage tobacco use continues to be a major public health problem in the United States."