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Smoking is no longer cool; campaigns still have work to do

Charlie Waters smokes in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2007.
Charlie Waters smokes in Omaha, Neb., Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2007.
Associated Press

Rarely are reports from the state health department as gratifying as the recent announcement that the use of tobacco among Utah teenagers has reached an historic low level, confirming a dramatic trend of more than a decade.

How dramatic? The department says the percentage of teenagers who smoke has dropped in half since 1999. The overall smoking rate — teenagers and adults included — is also dropping. According to national statistics, Utah has the nation's lowest rate of overall tobacco use.

That's the good news. The not-so-good news is that about 6 percent of teenagers and 12 percent of adults in Utah continue to use tobacco. As such, while myriad campaigns aimed at educating people about the dangers of smoking and offering assistance in quitting are clearly working, they still have work left to do.

The successful assault on tobacco use is made up of three components, in the following order of effectiveness: Parents have been increasingly vigilant in directing and policing their children's behavior. Second, kids themselves have turned peer pressure into a cudgel against experimentation with tobacco. And finally, there has been a significant investment in public and private programs aimed at hammering home the dangers of smoking and offering encouragement and methods to quit.

But a continuing reduction in smoking rates is not a signal that we can now sit back and relax. Surveys show that 80 percent of the estimated 220,000 Utah smokers say they want to quit. That percentage alone offers an argument that anti-smoking campaigns ought to be ramped up even more to ensure that the trend continues.

The 50 percent reduction among teenagers bodes well for the future, which may see a time when smoking is virtually eliminated. And it could foreshadow improvement in the rates of other substance abuse.

For kids, tobacco use has long been viewed as a gateway to experimentation with alcohol and drugs. The numbers nationally show drug use among teens has declined overall, even though there has been a slight increase in the use of Marijuana. In Utah, there has been a notable decrease in the rates of heavy drinking and "binge" drinking and a gradual decline in alcohol use among teenagers overall.

Again, this speaks in favor of continuing, if not escalating, societal vigilance against use of tobacco and abuse of drugs and alcohol. With children, that vigilance begins in the home. Study after study show that children who live in households where there is frequent contact and communication with parents and siblings are much less likely to take up unhealthy habits.

Significantly, experts in the field say among kids smoking no longer enjoys the same "cool" factor it had generations ago, and it's difficult to imagine any social or cultural circumstances that will restore it.

The reductions in smoking rates certainly have economic impacts on the tobacco industry. But tobacco use has a societal cost in medical expenses and lost productivity — in Utah alone measuring more than $600 million a year.

Given that, we hope the recent report that shows where we have come in the last 13 years is seen as a milepost, not a finish line.