Smoking, chewing and other tobacco use by teenagers continue to fall in Washington and Ramsey counties, but health officials say they face an ongoing battle against industry marketing campaigns that try to attract young people to nicotine.
"What we're seeing here as well as across the country is a cultural shift," said Lisa Marshall, a health educator for the St. Paul/Ramsey County Health Department. "People are more and more aware of the health effects of what happens when you smoke."
Fewer teens are using tobacco for several reasons such as vigorous anti-smoking campaigns, Minnesota's smoking ban in bars and restaurants, and a new state law that further tightens control over sales of tobacco products to youths, she said.
Though a new Minnesota student survey shows a shrinking number of teen tobacco users, it also pointed how easy it is for them to get tobacco. More than half of 12th-graders who use tobacco said they bought it at gas stations and convenience stores. Nearly as many said they got it from friends.
In Washington County, where commissioners voted recently to update ordinances to further restrict youth access to tobacco, most students said they never have smoked, but some confessed to lighting up when they were 10 years old or younger.
A law passed by the Legislature last spring attempts to make tobacco products harder to buy by expanding the definitions of tobacco products and requiring that all products and devices be sold from behind a counter.
Jean Streetar, a Washington County health program manager, said that tobacco use among high school seniors has declined steadily since 1998 and 9 percent in the past three years.
Use among sixth-graders is relatively minor, but 10 percent of ninth-graders and 18 percent of 12th-graders in the most recent survey admitted to tobacco use, she said.
Washington County licenses about 20 percent of all tobacco vendors in the county, while cities do the rest. Last year, 97 percent of the county-licensed businesses refused tobacco sales to minors, she said.
In Ramsey County, more high school seniors this year than in 2007 say they've never smoked or used other tobacco products.
For example, 79 percent of boys and 83 percent of girls said they hadn't smoked a cigarette in the past month, a combined 6 percent more than in the last survey three years ago.
But Marshall said flamboyant tobacco advertising presents a daunting problem because it's everywhere on the Internet.
A Web search with the keywords "free cigarettes" showed 12.7 million hits, and another with "cigarette coupons" showed nearly half a million.
Tobacco companies try to influence kids with color, flavors, design and appearance, she said, in the tradition of the old Virginia Slims ads that promised "you would be a beautiful, stylish woman" by smoking.
"They're constantly working on new products which will appeal to youth," she said.
In St. Paul, tobacco advertising is heavier in ethnic neighborhoods. "They see a target, I think. The perception is the inner-city youth will be appealed to more with that kind of thing," Marshall said.
Participation in the student survey, involving 295 Minnesota public school districts last spring, was voluntary and anonymous. About 75 percent of ninth-graders chose to take the survey and among 12th-graders, participation was 59 percent.
Kevin Giles • 651-735-3342