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3 million U.S. youth use tobacco products, FDA and CDC report

Nationwide, roughly 3 million middle school and high school students reported using a tobacco product in the past 30 days, and e-cigarettes and flavored cigars topped cigarette use, new data show. Photo by 1503849/Pixabay
Nationwide, roughly 3 million middle school and high school students reported using a tobacco product in the past 30 days, and e-cigarettes and flavored cigars topped cigarette use, new data show. Photo by 1503849/Pixabay

Nov. 10 (UPI) -- Roughly 3 million middle school and high school students across the country reported using a tobacco product within 30 days of a national survey conducted from January through May, and e-cigarettes and flavored cigars topped cigarette use, newly released data show.

The study, which analyzed data from the 2022 National Youth Tobacco Survey to make national estimates, was released jointly by the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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It was published Thursday in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Federal health officials said the latest data underscore how the use of commercial tobacco products continues to threaten the health of U.S. youth.

According to the agencies' analysis, of the 2.51 million, or 16.5% of high school students, and 530,000, or 4.5% of middle school students, who are using tobacco products this year nationwide, a disproportionate number are non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native students and non-Hispanic Black students.

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Other groups with a higher percentage of tobacco product use were kids who have mostly failing school grades, at 27.2%; report severe symptoms of psychological distress, 18.3%; identify as transgender, 16.6%; as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, 16%; and live in poverty, 12.5%.

"The fact that 3 million children are using at least one tobacco product is very troubling," especially given the highest use among vulnerable, at-risk youth who are "being preyed upon by tobacco companies," Erika Sward, the American Lung Association's Washington, D.C.-based chief lobbyist on tobacco and healthcare issues, told UPI in a phone interview.

Among all race and ethnicity groups, non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native students had the highest percentage of any tobacco product use, at 13.5%. That, Sward said, "is really scary and alludes to [their] health problems for decades to come."

The agencies said changes in the self-administered survey's methodology, as children returned to school from pandemic-imposed home isolation, make it difficult to compare 2022 with national estimates from prior years.

The return to school, while good for their mental health, also ramps up peer pressure that makes them much more likely to use tobacco products, Sward said.

Not only is there a continuing array of flavored tobacco products on the market, but there is also heavy marketing to children and adolescents, especially the most vulnerable ones, she said.

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"Because most flavored cigars are still on the market, we've seen a migration from cigarettes to cigars," she added.

This speaks to the urgent need for the Biden administration to finalize two rules -- one that bans menthol cigarettes and the other the prohibits flavored cigars, which are expected to be released by March 2023, Sward said.

The FDA also is working to remove illegal flavored e-cigarettes from the market, while some states are taking action, she said.

Sward noted that California, by passing Proposition 31 on Tuesday, aims to join Washington, D.C., and Massachusetts in prohibiting the retail sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes, from the market by mid-December, but R. j. Reynolds Tobacco Co. has filed a legal challenge.

According to Sward, it is difficult for the FDA, which was given immediate authority under a 2009 federal law to ban flavored e-cigarettes and more, to keep pace with the tobacco industry's rapid proliferation of flavored cigars -- and its ads.

Such ads "are aimed at kids, and they're particularly aimed at kids of color," she said. "It is not a coincidence that Native American youth and Black youth use these products at high levels. It's because the industry has targeted them."

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Tobacco companies have been working to addict kids faster than the FDA could promulgate rules, Sward said, noting there are FDA-approved products for adults who are trying to kick the tobacco habit, but not for children and adolescents.

"Now there are 16 million Americans with a tobacco-caused illness," Sward said, "and we'll only see the number remain unless we're able to help everyone quit."

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