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Chapter 1: Summary

This page is archived for historical purposes and is no longer being updated.


The health effects of cigarette smoking have been the subject of intensive investigation since the l950s. Cigarette smoking is still considered the chief preventable cause of premature disease and death in the United States. As was documented extensively in previous Surgeon General's reports, cigarette smoking has been causally linked to lung cancer and other fatal malignancies, atherosclerosis and coronary heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and other conditions that constitute a wide array of serious health consequences (USDHHS 1989). More recent studies have concluded that passive (or involuntary) smoking can cause disease, including lung cancer, in healthy nonsmokers. In 1986, an advisory committee appointed by the Surgeon General released a special report on the health consequences of smokeless tobacco, concluding that smokeless tobacco use can cause cancer and can lead to nicotine addiction (USDHHS 1986). In the 1988 report, nicotine was designated a highly addictive substance, comparable in its physiological and psychological properties to other addictive substances of abuse (USDHHS 1988).

Considerable evidence indicates that the health problems associated with smoking are a function of the duration (years) and the intensity (amount) of use. The younger one begins to smoke, the more likely one is to be a current smoker as an adult. Earlier onset of cigarette smoking and smokeless tobacco use provides more life-years to use tobacco and thereby increases the potential duration of use and the risk of a range of more serious health consequences. Earlier onset is also associated with heavier use; those who begin to use tobacco as younger adolescents are among the heaviest users in adolescence and adulthood. Heavier users are more likely to experience tobacco-related health problems and are the least likely to quit smoking cigarettes or using smokeless tobacco. Preventing tobacco use among young people is therefore likely to affect both duration and intensity of total use of tobacco, potentially reducing long-term health consequences significantly.

Health Consequences of Tobacco Use Among Young People

Active smoking by young people is associated with significant health problems during childhood and adolescence and with increased risk factors for health problems in adulthood. Cigarette smoking during adolescence appears to reduce the rate of lung growth and the level of maximum lung function that can be achieved. Young smokers are likely to be less physically fit than young nonsmokers; fitness levels are inversely related to the duration and the intensity of smoking. Adolescent smokers report that they are significantly more likely than their nonsmoking peers to experience shortness of breath, coughing spells, phlegm production, wheezing, and overall diminished physical health. Cigarette smoking during childhood and adolescence poses a clear risk for respiratory symptoms and problems during adolescence; these health problems are risk factors for other chronic conditions in adulthood, including chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death among adults in the United States. Atherosclerosis, however, may begin in childhood and become clinically significant by young adulthood. Cigarette smoking has been shown to be a primary risk factor for coronary heart disease, arteriosclerotic peripheral vascular disease, and stroke. Smoking by children and adolescents is associated with an increased risk of early atherosclerotic lesions and increased risk factors for cardiovascular diseases. These risk factors include increased levels of low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, increased very-low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, increased triglycerides, and reduced levels of high-density lipoprotein cholesterol. If sustained into adulthood, these patterns significantly increase the risk for early development of cardiovascular disease.

Smokeless tobacco use is associated with health consequences that range from halitosis to severe health problems such as various forms of oral cancer. Use of smokeless tobacco by young people is associated with early indicators of adult health consequences, including periodontal degeneration, soft tissue lesions, and general systemic alterations. Previous reports have documented that smokeless tobacco use is as addictive for young people as it is for adults. Another concern is that smokeless tobacco users are more likely than nonusers to become cigarette smokers.

Among addictive behaviors such as the use of alcohol and other drugs, cigarette smoking is most likely to become established during adolescence. Young people who begin to smoke at an earlier age are more likely than later starters to develop long-term nicotine addiction. Most young people who smoke regularly are already addicted to nicotine, and they experience this addiction in a manner and severity similar to what adult smokers experience. Most adolescent smokers report that they would like to quit smoking and that they have made numerous, usually unsuccessful attempts to quit. Many adolescents say that they intend to quit in the future and yet prove unable to do so. Those who try to quit smoking report withdrawal symptoms similar to those reported by adults. Adolescents are difficult to recruit for formal cessation programs, and when enrolled, are difficult to retain in the programs. Success rates in adolescent cessation programs tend to be quite low, both in absolute terms and relative to control conditions.

Tobacco use is associated with a range of problem behaviors during adolescence. Smokeless tobacco or cigarettes are generally the first drug used by young people in a sequence that can include tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, and hard drugs. This pattern does not imply that tobacco use causes other drug use, but rather that other drug use rarely occurs before the use of tobacco. Still, there are a number of biological, behavioral, and social mechanisms by which the use of one drug may facilitate the use of other drugs, and adolescent tobacco users are substantially more likely to use alcohol and illegal drugs than are nonusers. Cigarette smokers are also more likely to get into fights, carry weapons, attempt suicide, and engage in high-risk sexual behaviors. These problem behaviors can be considered a syndrome, since involvement in one behavior increases the risk for involvement in others. Delaying or preventing the use of tobacco may have implications for delaying or preventing these other behaviors as well.

The Epidemiology of Tobacco Use Among Young People

Overall, about one-third of high-school-aged adolescents in the United States smoke or use smokeless tobacco. Smoking prevalence among U.S. adolescents declined sharply in the 1970s, but this decline slowed significantly in the 1980s, particularly among white males. Although female adolescents during the 1980s were more likely than male adolescents to smoke, female and male adolescents are now equally likely to smoke. Male adolescents are substantially more likely than females to use smokeless tobacco products; about 20% of high school males report current use, whereas only about 1% of females do. White adolescents are more likely to smoke and to use smokeless tobacco than are black and Hispanic adolescents.

Sociodemographic, environmental, behavioral, and personal factors can encourage the onset of tobacco use among adolescents. Young people from families with lower socioeconomic status, including those adolescents living in single-parent homes, are at increased risk of initiating smoking. Among environmental factors, peer influence seems to be particularly potent in the early stages of tobacco use; the first tries of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco occur most often with peers, and the peer group may subsequently provide expectations, reinforcement, and cues for experimentation. Parental tobacco use does not appear to be as compelling a risk factor as peer use; on the other hand, parents may exert a positive influence by disapproving of smoking, being involved in children's free time, discussing health matters with children, and encouraging children's academic achievement and school involvement.

How adolescents perceive their social environment may be a stronger influence on behavior than the actual environment. For example, adolescents consistently overestimate the number of young people and adults who smoke. Those with the highest overestimates are more likely to become smokers than are those with more accurate perceptions. Similarly, those who perceive that cigarettes are easily accessible and generally available are more likely to begin smoking than are those who perceive more difficulty in obtaining cigarettes.

Behavioral factors figure heavily during adolescence, a period of multiple transitions to physical maturation, to a coherent sense of self, and to emotional independence. Adolescents are thus particularly vulnerable to a range of hazardous behaviors and activities, including tobacco use, that may seem to assist in these transitions. Young people who report that smoking serves positive functions or is potentially useful are at increased risk for smoking. These functions are associated with bonding with peers, being independent and mature, and having a positive social image. Since reports from adolescents who begin to smoke indicate that they have lower self-esteem and lower self-images than their nonsmoking peers, smoking can become a self-enhancement mechanism. Similarly, not having the confidence to be able to resist peer offers of tobacco seems to be an important risk factor for initiation. Intentions to use tobacco and actual experimentation also strongly predict subsequent regular use.

The positive functions that many young people attribute to smoking are the same functions advanced in most cigarette advertising. Young people are a strategically important market for the tobacco industry. Since most smokers try their first cigarette before age 18, young people are the chief source of new consumers for the tobacco industry, which each year must replace the many consumers who quit smoking and the many who die from smoking-related diseases. Despite restrictions on tobacco marketing, children and adolescents continue to be exposed to cigarette advertising and promotional activities, and young people report considerable familiarity with many cigarette advertisements. In the past, this exposure was accomplished by radio and television programs sponsored by the cigarette industry. Barred since 1971 from using broadcast media, the tobacco industry increasingly relies on promotional activities, including sponsorship of sports events and public entertainment, outdoor billboards, point-of-purchase displays, and the distribution of specialty items that appeal to the young. Cigarette advertisements in the print media persist; these messages have become increasingly less informational, replacing words with images to portray the attractiveness and function of smoking. Cigarette advertising frequently uses human models or human-like cartoon characters to display images of youthful activities, independence, healthfulness, and adventure-seeking. In presenting attractive images of smokers, cigarette advertisements appear to stimulate some adolescents who have relatively low self-images to adopt smoking as a way to improve their own self-image. Cigarette advertising also appears to affect adolescents' perceptions of the pervasiveness of smoking, images of smokers, and the function of smoking. Since these perceptions are psychosocial risk factors for the initiation of smoking, cigarette advertising appears to increase young people's risk of smoking.

Efforts to Prevent the Onset of Tobacco Use

Most of the U.S. public strongly favors policies that might prevent tobacco use among young people. These policies include mandated tobacco education in schools, a complete ban on smoking by anyone on school grounds, further restrictions on tobacco advertising and promotional activities, stronger prohibitions on the sale of tobacco products to minors, and increases in earmarked taxes on tobacco products. Interventions to prevent initiation among young people—even actions that involve restrictions on adult smoking or increased taxes—have received strong support among smoking and nonsmoking adults.

Numerous research studies over the past 15 years suggest that organized interventions can help prevent the onset of smoking and smokeless tobacco use. School-based smoking-prevention programs, based on a model of identifying social influences on smoking and providing skills to resist those influences, have demonstrated consistent and significant reductions in adolescent smoking prevalence; these program effects have lasted one to three years. Programs to prevent smokeless tobacco use have used a similar model to achieve modest reductions in initiation of use. The effectiveness of these school-based programs appears to be enhanced and sustained, at least until high school graduation, by adding coordinated communitywide programs that involve parents, youth-oriented mass media and counteradvertising, community organizations, or other elements of adolescents' social environments.

A crucial element of prevention is access: adolescents should not be able to purchase tobacco products in their communities. Active enforcement of age-at-sale policies by public officials and community members appears necessary to prevent minors' access to tobacco. Communities that have adopted tighter restrictions have achieved reductions in purchases by minors. At the state and national levels, price increases have significantly reduced cigarette smoking; the young have been at least as responsive as adults to these price changes. Maintaining higher real prices of cigarettes provides a barrier to adolescent tobacco use but depends on further tax increases to offset the effects of inflation. The results of this review thus suggest that a coordinated, multicomponent campaign involving policy changes, taxation, mass media, and behavioral education can effectively reduce the onset of tobacco use among adolescents.


Smoking and smokeless tobacco use are usually initiated and established in adolescence. Besides its long-term effects on adults, tobacco use produces specific health problems for adolescents. Since nicotine addiction also occurs during adolescence, adolescent tobacco users are likely to become adult tobacco users. Smoking and smokeless tobacco use are associated with other problem behaviors and occur early in the sequence of these behaviors. The outcomes of adolescent smoking and smokeless tobacco use continue to be of great public health importance, since one out of three U.S. adolescents uses tobacco by age 18. The social environment of adolescents, including the functions, meanings, and images of smoking that are conveyed through cigarette advertising, sets the stage for adolescents to begin using tobacco. As tobacco products are available and as peers begin to try them, these factors become personalized and relevant, and tobacco use may begin. This process most affects adolescents who, compared with their peers, have lower self-esteem and self-images, are less involved with school and academic achievement, have fewer skills to resist the offers of peers, and come from homes with lower socioeconomic status. Tobacco-use prevention programs that target the larger social environment of adolescents are both efficacious and warranted.

Disclaimer: Data and findings provided in the publications on this page reflect the content of this particular Surgeon General's Report. More recent information may exist elsewhere on the Smoking & Tobacco Use Web site (for example, in fact sheets, frequently asked questions, or other materials that are reviewed on a regular basis and updated accordingly).