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Tobacco still a problem among children despite declines, surgeon general's report shows


By Steven Ross Johnson
Posted: January 17, 2014 - 2:00 pm ET
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Despite the number of smokers reaching a historic low, more than 5 million children remain at risk of dying prematurely unless more is done to further reduce tobacco use in the U.S., health officials said Friday.

Findings from the U.S. Surgeon General's 50th annual report on smoking show that tobacco remained a problem among those under age 18 despite declines youth smoking that saw the rate fall from its peak of 25% in 1997 to 10% by 2011. Federal health officials estimate that 3,200 children a day try their first cigarette and another 2,100 become daily smokers.

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The latest report also for the first time identified new health risks related to tobacco use, including diabetes, erectile dysfunction, ectopic pregnancy, tuberculosis and Rheumatoid arthritis, macular degeneration, liver and colorectal cancers, and impaired immune function.

“We've made a lot of progress in the 50 years since the first surgeon general's report on smoking and health, but we're still a country very much addicted to tobacco,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said. “This addiction, this epidemic, has serious ramifications for our families, our communities, our overall health and the health of our economy.”

The harmful effects of smoking first became widely known in 1964 when Surgeon General Dr. Luther Terry released the first report concluding that cigarettes increased the risk of developing lung cancer. “The conclusions from surgeon general reports have evolved from a few causal relationships in 1964 to a robust body of evidence documenting the health consequences of both active smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke across a range of diseases,” Acting Surgeon General Dr. Boris Lushniak said Friday. “Over time, both the number and strength of our conclusions on the impact of smoking have increased.”

Though fewer cigarettes are smoked today than in 1964, Lushniak said, the risk of developing lung cancer is actually higher today because of changes in their design and the chemicals they now contain.

Overall, tobacco control efforts since the release of the first report have been successful in driving down the rate. In 1964, 42% of Americans smoked. Since that time, a combination of taxation, smoking bans in enclosed public places and an aggressive marketing campaign have resulted in the rates falling to 18% in 2012, the lowest recorded rate, which experts contend has saved more than 8 million lives.

But the decline has leveled off somewhat, with the rate remaining under 20% since 2010 but still well short of reaching the federal government's goal of 12% by the year 2020.

Follow Steven Ross Johnson on Twitter: @MHSjohnson


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