Fewer North Dakota teenagers are smoking than did two years ago.
The Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted every other year by the Department of Public Instruction, found that 19.4 percent of students in the state smoke compared with 22.4 percent of teenagers in 2009. The 2011 survey was administered in the spring and the findings were published last month.
“This is the first time we’ve seen youth rates dip below 20 percent,” said Jeanne Prom, executive director of the North Dakota Center for Tobacco Prevention and Control Policy.
“Is one in five (students smoking) still acceptable? I don’t think so,” she said. “We’re very encouraged by what we’ve seen in the last two years but we’re going to continue until we see that number go down as low as it can possibly go.”
Junior Jacob Sommerfeld, a member of Century High School’s Students Against Destructive Decisions club, said he thinks smoking rates have diminished at his school.
“In my grade it’s not so much smoking anymore,” he said, noting that he thinks chewing and drinking rates have held steady.
“A lot of kids say smoking is disgusting or it’s not as appealing or attractive as it used to be,” he said.
Sommerfeld said he thinks most of his peers tell the truth on surveys such as the Youth Risk Behavior Survey because it is confidential. Gail Schauer, assistant director of coordinated school health at the Department of Public Instruction, agrees.
“Students take the assessment paper and pencil to their own desk and it is very private. No one can see the answers,” she said.
Schauer said the department is only able to see the statewide averages from the survey; the numbers from each school are kept confidential unless the school decides to share the information.
“So in a smaller school, if you only have 20 students taking the test, that data would not be publicized at all,” she explained. “We have to have a certain number of students take the test (for them) to give out that information.”
Schauer said the national data from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey will not come out until next spring or summer. At that time, the state will be able to compare itself to the national average.
Combating youth smoking
In the past two years, 42 North Dakota schools have passed policies that make the entire school campus tobacco free, Prom said. At schools with the policy, no one – including staff, parents or visitors – is allowed to smoke on school grounds.
“That sets up a social norm where tobacco use is unusual,” Prom said. “Therefore young people are less likely to ever experiment.”
About half the schools in Burleigh County have the policy, she said. Bismarck Public Schools passed its policy more than two years ago and Mandan Public Schools put its policy into effect in January. Bismarck’s Cathedral of the Holy Spirit and the Dakota Adventist Academy have also implemented the tobacco-free campus policy in the last two years. The University of Mary’s tobacco-free campus policy will go into effect on Jan. 1.
Michelle Walker, tobacco prevention and control program director for the North Dakota Health Department, agrees that social norms must be changed in order for teen smoking to subside.
“When (students) see not everybody does it … it’s a lot easier to go with the majority rather than the minority,” she said.
“I think it’s not the policy, it’s more so kids realize it’s not the cool thing to do anymore,” Sommerfeld said. “The main selling point (of cigarettes) is it makes you look cool. I think more kids are seeing it as a turn-off than a turn-on.”
Walker said that the increasing price of cigarettes, anti-smoking media messages and more smoke free laws and ordinances also impact student smoking rates.
“That trifecta has made a difference in youth rates, which is really what we strive for,” she said.
“Cost does resonate; it’s a measure of fairness,” Prom said. “And young people really understand the concept of everything being fair.”
The statewide adult smoking rate has dropped as well, from 18.6 percent in 2009 to 17.4 percent in 2010, according to the North Dakota Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.