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Experts Fear Spike in Number of Teen Smoker



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The percentage of Minnesota teens who indicated in a survey that they might smoke in the next year spiked 22 percent six months after the state stopped funding a youth anti-tobacco campaign, a new study says.

Public health officials fear the Minnesota teens' increasingly relaxed attitudes about cigarettes means national declines in smoking could be reversed if funding for programs isn't increased again. The rate among youth dropped by more than 21 percent from 1997 to 2001.

Tight budgets and a weak economy have led many states, including Minnesota and Georgia, to redirect some of their share of a $246 billion windfall from tobacco company lawsuit settlements, shifting money from smoking prevention programs to education, highways and other areas.

More than 80 percent of smokers start before age 18, health officials say, so any shift in adolescent attitudes or smoking rates can have a great impact.

"We think it's an early harbinger of what could be going on in other states," said Dr. David Nelson of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Thursday, the CDC released the study, also compiled by researchers in Minnesota and at the University of Miami.

"We can have an impact on adolescent behavior, but it's not cheap, and it needs to be sustained over time," said Aggie Leitheiser, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health.

Minnesota spent nearly $24 million a year on anti-tobacco programs until last July, when funding was cut to less than $5 million, eliminating the teen campaign.

Youth activities, a Web site and edgy TV ads mocking tobacco company executives vanished, replaced by a few grants for clean air initiatives.

At the time the youth programs stopped, 43.3 percent of Minnesota adolescents ages 12 to 17 were considered susceptible to smoking, meaning they responded to a survey statement --- "You will smoke a cigarette in the next year" --- with answers other than "strongly disagree."

Six months later, 52.9 percent replied other than "strongly disagree." It's too early to tell whether smoking rates have risen since the programs stopped, but other studies have linked susceptibility to smoking and increased cigarette use.

Youth smoking rates in Minnesota had declined 11 percent in the two years after the youth programs were started in 2000, state officials said.

In another example cited in the new CDC study, illegal sales of tobacco to minors increased by 74 percent last year in Massachusetts after funding cuts in that state.

According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, only four states --- Maine, Delaware, Mississippi and Arkansas --- recently funded tobacco-control programs at the level recommended by the CDC --- earmarking about a quarter of their tobacco settlement payments.

Georgia, slated to receive about $167 million in settlement funds this year, is spending about $11.5 million on tobacco prevention, state officials said. A proposal to reduce that amount next year awaits approval of the fiscal 2005 budget.

Experts estimate that tobacco company marketing outspends state tobacco control efforts by 20-to-1.

Copyright 2004 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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