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Teens Lighting Up Less
But Still Getting Their Tobacco Fix…And More
An article from David R. Smith at

Seeing less smoke down at the bus stop? In the gym locker room? That’s because teens are smoking fewer cigarettes these days. But they’re not going without tobacco.

Or marijuana.

I Don’t “Smoke” Tobacco
The University of Michigan just released the findings from their annual “Monitoring the Future” report, a study that spans more than three decades and looks into behaviors, attitudes, and values of teenagers in America. The press release from their 2009 survey highlights some good news…and some bad news.

The good news is that teenagers are smoking fewer and fewer cigarettes these days. The “gradual decline” that began in the mid-to-late 90’s continued another year in 2009. Of the 46,097 students in the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades – from 389 different schools – who were polled, all age groups showed a decrease in cigarette use in all three areas of use that were researched: daily, last 30 days, and lifetime.

Cool. Maybe all those truth campaign ads actually worked..

That, and the fact that more teens are simply never lighting up in the first place. For instance, 13 years ago, 49% of 8th graders admitted to smoking at least once in their lifetime, but in 2009, just 20% had ever tried cigarettes. All my life I’ve heard smokers say, “The best way to quit is to never start.” I guess they were right.

So, fewer teens are smoking cigarettes. That’s great!

But, they’re not going without tobacco.

Unfortunately, researchers also discovered that teenagers’ use of smokeless tobacco increased in 2009. For example, 8.4% of 12th-graders admitted use of smokeless tobacco in 2009, compared to 6.5% in 2008. And 3.7% of the younger nicotine-craving 8th graders used smokeless tobacco in 2009 compared to 3.5% in 2008. The most popular forms of smokeless tobacco include plug, snuff, dip, chewing tobacco, and more recently, “snus.”

OK. So teens are still using tobacco products in spite of the dangerous potential for cancerous side effects.

Wait. It gets worse.

“OK…I Did Inhale”
It appears as though 2009 saw an increase in teenagers’ marijuana use, as well. In the 2009 study, 11.8% of 8th graders admitted to smoking pot, compared with 10.9% the year before. Likewise, 26.7% of 10th graders said they lit up a joint, versus just 23.9% in 2008. Finally 32.8% of 12th graders smoked pot in 2009 compared with 32.4% the previous year.

You read that right: all age groups increased their marijuana use in the past year.

Unlike former President Clinton, it sounds like these kids are inhaling.

Before I even finished reading up on this subject, I could already hear the voices of those engaged in the debate for marijuana’s legalization in the U.S. Sure enough, according to this TIME article, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project said, “Clearly, regulation of tobacco products has worked to curb access by teens, and it's time to apply those same sensible policies to marijuana.”

Ahhh. There’s nothing like using half the truth to promote your cause.

Clearing the Air
A reasonable question to ask is, “Why is cigarette smoking decreasing while use of smokeless tobacco and marijuana increases?”

A number of possibilities may explain the somewhat conflicting findings. First, millions upon millions of dollars have been pumped into today’s youth culture in hopes of preventing teens from “smoking” by outlining the dangers associated with the habit. But the brunt of “prevention dollars” has been aimed at cigarettes and not smokeless tobacco or marijuana. Second, leading researchers believe that many students simply don’t equate the use of smokeless tobacco and marijuana with the harmful and unhealthy consequences that have been pinned on cigarettes for decades.

Finally, 2009 offered plenty of reasons for parents and youth workers to be distracted from telling teenagers about the evils of tobacco and marijuana use. The last calendar year found teenagers facing dangerously low self-esteem, obesity, tempting forms of hi-tech academic cheating, deliberate self-harm, a sex-saturated culture, and more.

I guess tobacco and marijuana use just got lost in the cloud of smoke caused by these other problems.

Parents who want to clear the air on this subject need to do a couple of things.

  1. Stay informed and never let your guard down. This webpage lists all of the University of Michigan’s findings, tables, and reports from their 2009 study, though you will need the latest edition of Adobe Acrobat/Reader to access them (which can be downloaded here for free). Spend some time looking over who is doing what…especially if you have a teenager in your home. What you’ll find is a host of good reasons to NEVER let your guard down when it comes to discussing tobacco and marijuana use with your teens. Yes, there are plenty of other negative elements within youth culture that we must help our kids navigate, but we now know what happens if we let our guard down on such an important subject. Out of sight doesn’t necessarily mean out of mind.

  2. Do what you teach. It’s as simple as this: if you condemn tobacco and marijuana, don’t use them yourself. Tobacco and/or marijuana use is definitely one of the practices that falls under the category of “monkey see, monkey do.” If they see inconsistency between your words and lifestyle, what you “say” becomes far less impacting. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve spoken with teenagers in my own youth ministry, and around the country, who have difficulty rectifying the fact that their parents smoke, but tell them not to. Teenagers may even begin to apply this hypocrisy to other areas of life that you speak with them about, secretly wondering what else you’re condemning publically but doing personally.

Tobacco and marijuana use have consequences just like every other poor decision in life…even if those consequences are delayed by several decades. The absence of immediate effects cannot delay our constant addressing of these important health-related decisions. Thirty years from now, our kids will thank us.

David R. Smith David R. Smith is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year, Ministry By Teenagers. David provides free resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.

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