Thursday, December 17, 2009

Monitoring the Truth About Tobacco Use in Children

The Monitoring the Future Study, based at the University of Michigan, just released its report on youth tobacco, alcohol and drug use in 2009. In October, I discussed previous findings from the MTF study.

With respect to alcohol use among 12th graders, the new report is very similar to that of the previous year. A whopping 44% of 12th graders had used alcohol, and 27% had been drunk during the past 30 days. Obviously, this put them at immediate and potentially life-threatening risk for alcohol poisoning, motor vehicle and other accidents.

The findings for cigarette use in 2009 were also similar to those from 2008; 20% of 12th graders had smoked in the past 30 days.

In 2009, smokeless tobacco use among 12th graders increased to 8.4% from 6.5% in 2008. At first glance, that appears to be a big jump, but MTF did not find it statistically significant. In fact, MTF did not mention smokeless tobacco in its press release. Despite a paucity of evidence, anti-tobacco fanatics have already decided who is to blame. John Spangler, a tobacco prohibitionist from Wake Forest University who has a National Cancer Institute grant to study smokeless tobacco use among college students, claims that increased marketing of smokeless tobacco likely has had some effect on teenagers.

Matt Myers, president of prohibitionist Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, is certain that tobacco companies are to blame: “This increase coincides with the introduction of numerous new smokeless tobacco products and a big increase in smokeless tobacco marketing…These new products no doubt appeal to kids because they are easy to conceal, carry the names of youth-popular cigarette brands, and come in candy-like forms and flavors. More than 60 percent of smokeless marketing is spent on price discounts, including coupons, that make smokeless tobacco products more affordable and appealing to price-sensitive youth customers.”

Anti-tobacco fanatics have developed a brilliant strategy for dealing with ANY new research findings about tobacco use: If it’s good, take credit; if it’s bad, blame the industry.

This strategy has an intuitive appeal, and it pits the public health “angels” against the tobacco industry “demons.” But it doesn’t set a very good precedent for the application of scientific principles to public health policy. And it breaks down after applying even a small dose of common sense.

MTF also reported that past 30-day use of marijuana among 12th graders was higher in 2009 than use of cigarettes (20.6% vs. 20.1%). Perhaps anti-tobacco fanatics can answer this question: Which industry is responsible for marijuana use among children?

Any use of drugs, most importantly alcohol, among children is a major problem that should concern every American. We need to better understand the social and behavioral reasons why children experiment and adopt substance use, and we need interventions that are tailored to the relative impact of each substance on children’s health. With these rational guidelines, smokeless tobacco is at the bottom of the priority list.

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