Shift in teen smoking: more teens are turning to smoke-free tobacco and e-cigarettes

The vast majority of smokers (nine out of 10) first try cigarettes before their 18th birthday, according to the Centers for Disease Control. / Photo illustration by Metro Creative Graphics

Commentary by Sam Lowe
Times-News correspondent

   Preventing teens from using cigarettes is a cause with near universal support in modern society. Since studies began showing the dangers associated with their use, people everywhere have been searching for ways to keep teenagers from ever starting to smoke.
The vast majority of smokers (nine out of 10) first try cigarettes before their 18th birthday, meaning that by targeting teens and young adults, the health effects of smoking can be decreased across the board, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Like many around his age Frank Pyrtle, a 63-year-old Greensboro resident, began smoking in his early teens. Also typical was his reasoning for picking up his first pack.
“It was peer pressure, I’m sure,” Pyrtle said.
   As was and is the case for many first-time smokers, the dangers were “not really evident, initially.” A common theme with many who pick up cigarettes, Pyrtle siad he wishes he never would have.
“I’d change it in a skinny minute. The problem is I didn’t see how addicting cigarettes were until it was too late,” he said.
This unawareness of the realities of smoking is exactly what many organizations, like D.A.R.E. and TRU, are trying to get rid of.
Most efforts to keep teens and young adults away from cigarettes and other forms of tobacco focus on education. By getting the message of smoking’s dangers out to a wide audience of teenagers, these organizations are pushing to decrease cigarette use. Other groups, like Smokefree Teen, offer solutions for those teens who are trying to quit.
Whether or not preventative education and stop-smoking services are providing the answer, teen smoking rates are steadily declining.
In 2013, the percentage of teens who report smoking cigarettes at least once in the past 30 days reached a 22-year low of 15.7 percent, according to the CDC’s National Youth Risk Behavior survey. Also dropping in recent years is the percentage of teens who report using cigars. These figures represent the efforts and dollars of many anti-smoking groups.
Disconcerting to some of these groups is the rate at which teens are using things like smokeless tobacco and electronic cigarettes — a story becoming more and more typical among teens.
“I used to smoke traditional cigarettes on a regular basis before I switched to electronic cigarettes about a year ago,” said Harold Smithey, an 18-year-old senior at Western Alamance High School, who started smoking when he was 12 years old.
This matches up with the findings of several studies, which show that electronic cigarette use among teens has risen in recent years up to 4.5 percent in 2013, according to the CDC’s National Youth Tobacco survey. More interesting, though, are Harold’s reasons for switching.
“I had developed pretty bad emphysema in most of my lungs by my 18th birthday. The symptoms, like shortness of breath, were really beginning to show themselves, and so I decided to make the switch,” Smithey said.
Smithey’s attitudes toward traditional and electronic cigarettes reflect the modern teen’s understanding of the dangers of smoking.
More and more teenagers are making decisions about tobacco use based on the knowledge they have been given for a large chunk of their lives, whether they are choosing alternative forms of tobacco or abstaining from tobacco products entirely. Many would argue that teens and young adults are using things like e-cigarettes and hookahs at an increasing rate because they perceive these alternatives as safe or safer.
If the end goal is a complete lack of tobacco use among teenagers and education about cigarettes has been correlated with lower usage rates, it might be time for those anti-smoking groups to shift their focus. Maybe then there’ll be a tobacco-free future.

 Sam Lowe is a junior at Western Alamance High School and a Teens & Twenties writer.


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