RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Sales of tobacco to minors in the U.S. reached an all-time low in 2011 under a federal and state inspection program intended to curb underage tobacco use, according to a report released Thursday.
The violation rate of tobacco sales to underage youth at retailers nationwide has fallen from about 40 percent in 1997 to 8.5 percent in the last fiscal year, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration. The rate is based on the results of random, unannounced inspections conducted at stores to see whether they'd sell tobacco products to a customer under the age of 18.
In March, the U.S. Surgeon General said more needs to be done to keep young Americans from using tobacco, including new bans and increased taxes on tobacco products. It was the first comprehensive look at youth tobacco use from the surgeon general's office in nearly two decades.
That point was driven home in a separate report Thursday from another federal agency. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that a large increase in the consumption of cigars and loose tobacco products is offset the decline in cigarette consumption last year. Adult cigarette consumption fell 2.5 percent between 2010 and 2011, but consumption of other forms of smoked tobacco products increased more than 17 percent in the same period, according to the report, which highlighted disparities in taxes and classifications for tobacco products as part of the reason for the increase.
Almost one in five high school-aged teens smokes, according to that report. The numbers are down from earlier decades, but the rate of decline has slowed. It also said that more than 80 percent of smokers begin by age 18 and 99 percent of adult smokers in the U.S. start by age 26.
"We know that if we can stop kids from smoking before they turn 18, the chance that they will become smokers as adults is actually very low. By reducing retail access, we're reducing one of the ways that kids can get introduced to tobacco and become smokers," said Susan Marsiglia Gray, who oversees the Synar Regulation program.
The program, named for late U.S. Rep. Mike Synar of Oklahoma, is a federal mandate requiring each state to document that the rate of tobacco sales to minors is no more than 20 percent at the risk losing millions in federal funds for alcohol and other drug abuse prevention and treatment services.
In the last fiscal year, 34 states reported a retailer violation rate below 10 percent, according to the Thursday report. It was the sixth time that no state was found to be out of compliance. Nevada reported the lowest rate of 1.1 percent, and Oregon reported the highest rate at 19.3 percent.
However, the report said that children may instead be getting their cigarettes and tobacco products from places other than convenience stores or gas stations. The latest federal data shows that about 14 percent of minors reported buying their own cigarettes in stores in 2009, down from more than 23 percent a decade earlier.
"Reducing retail access is an important part of a comprehensive tobacco control program, but it's only one piece," said Marsiglia Gray, adding that states need to be involved with other tobacco control activities, such as increasing tobacco taxes, enacting smoking bans and conducting anti-smoking campaigns.