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Cancer Trends Progress Report – 2007 Update

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Age at Smoking Initiation
Youth Smoking
Adult Smoking
Quitting Smoking
Health Professionals’ Advice to Quit Smoking
Secondhand Smoke
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Alcohol Consumption
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Age at Smoking Initiation
Prevention: Behavioral Factors

The average age at which people first begin smoking has been relatively stable since the mid 1990s.

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Age at Smoking Initiation and Cancer

The younger a person starts smoking, the greater the lifelong risk of developing smoking-related cancers. That is because young smokers are more likely to become addicted, and the more years a person smokes, the greater the risk of cancer.

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Average age of first use of cigarettes, based on responses from people aged 12 and older, 12–17, and 18–25.

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Period – 1990–2005

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Age 12 and older: Rising in the early 1990s, then stable
Age 12–17: Rising in the early 1990s, then stable during 1996–2002, with no significant change between 2002–2005
Age 18–25: Rising until 1997, then stable through 2005

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Most Recent Estimates

In 2005, the average age at first use among people 12 and older was 15.5 years. Among 12- to 17-year-olds, the average age was 12.6. Among those 18–25, the average age was 14.8.

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Healthy People 2010 Targets

Increase the average age at first use of cigarettes to:

  • 14 years of age for 12- to 17-year-olds
  • 16* years of age for 18- to 25-year-olds (*Target revised from 17 because of baseline revision after Nov 2000 publication—cited in Midcourse Review)

There is no Healthy People 2010 target for age 12 and older as a group.

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Groups at High Risk for Beginning Smoking

Most cigarette smokers who first became smokers in 2005 were under age 18 (63.4 percent).

Smoking initiation rates have declined among Blacks, while delayed onset has been consistently indicated. Overall, Blacks have lower smoking initiation rates during adolescence than Whites and Hispanics for both males and females. Blacks begin regular smoking primarily after the age of 18. Hispanics have an earlier onset of cigarette smoking than Asians/Pacific Islanders and Blacks, while they have a higher but similar age of initiation compared with Whites.

Young people who come from low-income families with less education are more likely to smoke. So are those who have less success and involvement in school and fewer skills to resist the pervasive pressures to use tobacco. Tendencies to take risks and rebel are among the other risk factors for beginning smoking.

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Key Issues

Most smokers try their first cigarette before the age of 18 and become addicted during adolescence. Studies of smokers have indicated a greater sensitivity to becoming addicted during adolescence with less consumption than smokers initiating smoking as adults. Efforts to help young people delay or better avoid smoking should help to prevent many cancers.

A study examining former high school seniors one year after graduation found that, among “never smokers” in 12 th grade, 25 percent had begun smoking. Among 12 th grade smokers, 39 percent had increased their cigarette use. Efforts to reduce smoking among adolescents should be extended to young adults—regardless of whether they are enrolled in college—because risk for smoking initiation doesn't end at adolescence.

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Additional Information on Age at Smoking Initiation

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National Cancer InstituteDepartment of Health and Human ServicesNational Institutes of