CDC Spins Teen Smoking Rates

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (April 3, 1998)
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (June 19, 1992, 1998)
Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (September 13, 1998)

The Washington Post article (April 3, 1998) by John Schwartz reads:

Despite a national debate on reducing youth smoking, American teenagers continue to light up in increasing numbers, according to new government figures.

Overall, smoking rates among high school students rose by nearly a third between 1991 and 1997, creeping up from 27.5 percent to 36.4 percent, according to a report released yesterday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

More than half of white male high schoolers -- 51.5 percent -- and more than a third of white female students -- 40.8 percent -- reported smoking a cigarette in the previous month in 1997, the latest year the survey of 16,000 students in grades nine through 12 was conducted.

This combination of cherry-picked data by CDC and erroneous reporting by Schwartz is enough to make me (a lifetime nonsmoker) reach for a Marlboro.

While it may be true, according to the CDC numbers, that "current" smoking (i.e., smoked cigarettes on one or more of the 30 days preceding the survey) by teens was reported to be 27.5 percent in 1991 and was reported to be 36.4 percent in 1997, what CDC omitted to mention was that current smoking was reported to be at 32.3 percent in 1990. Considering the survey's error margins, it is quite possible that there has been no change in teen current smoking levels from 1990 to 1997. [Note the error margins in these surveys are typically in the range of plus/minus two percentage points).

But CDC opted to compare the 1991 survey with 1997 because of the larger difference. It is quite possible that the 1991 results simply reflect statistical variation and not a true lower rate of teen smoking.

For "frequent" smoking (i.e., smoked on 20 or more of the 30 days preceding the survey, and probably a better indicator of teen smoking than "current smoking"), rates have not measurably changed considering the margins of error: 13 percent (1990); 12.7 percent (1991) and 16.7 percent (1997).

Other factors potentially affecting these results include larger sample size (about 12,000 students surveyed in 1991 vs. 16,000 surveyed in 1997) and under-reported smoking (i.e., studies report as many as 15 percent of smokers falsely report themselves as nonsmokers -- and teens always tell the truth?).

And as for Schwartz's reporting, the 51.5 percent rate for white male use of cigarettes and 40.8 percent rate for white female use of cigarettes is actually for "any current tobacco use," not cigarettes. The cigarette use rates were 39.6 percent and 39.9 percent for white males and females, respectively.

Finally, CDC's national educational goals for the year 2000 are to have the rate of frequent smoking at 15 percent. It looks like teen smoking is already there. What's all the fuss?

I can understand not wanting teens to smoke. But how about adults telling the truth?

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