Just When You Thought We Were Smoking Less...

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What is it about young adulthood that turns people on to smoking? The intoxicating freedom? The feeling of invincibility? The looming prospect of lung cancer? It may be none of the above, but according to a study released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control, something is turning '90s college-age adults into smokers at a higher rate than their '80s counterparts. Despite success in some population groups, adult smoking rates in the 1990s have remained essentially static, thanks to large numbers of 18-to-24-year-olds who are picking up the habit. Between 1965 and 1990, the percentage of Americans who smoked plummeted from 44 percent to 24.7 percent, a drop the CDC likes to cite as "one of the 10 most notable public health achievements of this century." Current figures are well above the agency's goal, which is to see only 15 percent of the population smoking by the year 2000. It doesn't look like that's going to happen, in part because young adults' smoking rates are on the upswing, increasing from 24.5 percent in 1990 to 28.7 percent in 1997.

Why? It could be that government efforts to quell smoking are missing out on this susceptible segment of the population at the same time as the tobacco industry is homing in on them. Antismoking rhetoric is often aimed at young children and their parents, while cigarette makers, warned off their youngest consumers and such severely critized campaigns as the cartoonish Joe Camel, are now doubling their attempts to seduce the next age segment, young adults. A suggestion: Perhaps antismoking campaigns should be retooled to address kids in high school or just heading off to college. Otherwise it could be one heck of a deadly generation gap.