African-American teenagers have largely eliminated smoking from their lives, while white teenagers are still taking up the habit at high rates, according to a study reported in The Journal of the National Cancer Institute.
“This is the single most interesting change in the use of tobacco in years: the success of black teens,” said Dr. Michael Eriksen, chief of the Office on Smoking and Health at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
The trend is striking:
In 1976, federal surveys of thousands of high school seniors around the country showed that both black and white teenagers smoked at relatively high rates: 28.8 percent of whites smoked one or more cigarettes a day in the 30 days before the interviews, while 26.8 percent of black teenagers did so.
But by 1993, only 4.4 percent of black teenagers took up regular smoking, according to the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, which conducts the annual surveys for the government. Among whites, the figures remains high, at 22.9 percent in 1993, the highest it has been since the late 1970s.
According to an article being published today in the cancer institute’s journal, the change is not because of higher cigarette prices or because the teenagers are using other drugs, but is due to a change in attitude and social norms, said Dr. Sherry Mills, an epidemiologist who conducted group discussions with two dozen white and black teenagers in five cities to determine what was behind the trend.
Mills wrote in the journal that family and
community pressures were persuading young African-Americans not to smoke. For example, there is a belief that cigarette makers are targeting blacks. Refusing to smoke is part of the reaction. Black parents are firm in telling their children not to smoke, and black teenagers have also changed their idea of a good time, Mills said.
“Whereas black kids will go to a party to dance and mingle, white kids definitely will go - and this is their self-reporting - to drink beer and smoke cigarettes. Black kids just don’t see that as fun.”
In each of those categories, he said, when the groups were compared, the rate of regular smoking was was two to three times as high among white teenagers as among black teenagers.”For example, among dropouts, the whites are two to three times more likely to smoke,” he said.The lower rate among blacks also is not explained by use of other drugs instead of smoking, because black teenagers have also decreased their use of other drugs, including marijuana, alcohol and cocaine. Eriksen also said that blacks “seem to be
turning off the message from cigarette companies that smoking is cool. For blacks, it no longer provides that function. You hear black teens saying smoking’s a white thing.”
He noted that white rock groups and performers like Brad Pitt, Winona Ryder and Johnny Depp, continued to glamorize smoking, while black performers did not.
“Overall, we are very depressed about teen smoking because we have made no progress over the last 10 years,” he said.
“The only bright spot is the black teens. It shows us that we shouldn’t be satisfied with more than 20 percent of teens smoking. A significant portion of the population has already got it under 5 percent.”