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Most students wrong on risks of smoking occasionally

Most kids in middle and high school believe that smoking now and then isn’t bad for them, a new study finds. In fact, they’re wrong.

In a national survey, just 1 in 3 students thought that smoking on some days, but not others, can cause a lot of harm. This smoking pattern is common. It also is dangerous. In fact, its health risks are about the same as smoking heavily, report Stephen Amrock and Michael Weitzman. Both work at New York University School of Medicine. Their new study’s findings highlight that most kids do not see risks in smoking the occasional cigarette.

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For their study, Amrock and Weitzman analyzed data from the 2012 National Youth Tobacco Survey. It had probed tobacco-related knowledge, attitudes and behaviors in 24,658 students. All were in grades 6 through 12 and lived throughout the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

Most teens knew that heavy smoking can be seriously harmful. About 2 in every 3 students recognized that smoking even just a few cigarettes each day can be hazardous. Only 1 in 3 students, however, recognized that occasional — non-daily — smoking is harmful.

Among teens who smoke this way — intermittently — just 1 out of every 7 understood their habit was dangerous. Details appeared January 12 in the journal Pediatrics.

Occasional smoking is not safe, so “we really need to have a conversation” with whoever thinks otherwise, notes Dave Dobbins. He heads research and public education at Legacy, a group based in Washington, D.C. It encourages teens to reject tobacco. ”Intermittent smoking carries substantial risks,” Dobbins explains. These include the chance that light use will progress to heavier smoking. “We explain to kids that light smoking is smoking,” says Dobbins, who was not connected with the study. And, he adds, his group points out that the “dangers kick in right away.”

Adults who are light or intermittent smokers are those most willing and able to quit, Amrock and Weitzman note. Most smokers start by age 18. That’s why the NYU School of Medicine researchers suggest anti-smoking efforts should target youth who today are only light or occasional smokers.

The good news: Cigarette smoking among American teens has been falling. The bad news: Teen use of other tobacco products is on the rise. That’s the finding of a second new study, due out in the March Pediatrics.

Youn Ok Lee works at RTI International in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Her team also mined data from the 2012 National Youth Tobacco Survey. In 2012, more than 1 in 5 American teens — at least 20 percent — used tobacco products, they found. These expose kids to nicotine. And nicotine is an addictive drug.

But only 4 percent of these kids got their nicotine solely from cigarettes. At least twice as many teen smokers also use some other tobacco product. Among these: cigars, chewing tobacco, snuff, hookahs and electronic cigarettes. This use of two or more tobacco products “should be a concern to the health community,” Lee’s team says. At a minimum, the extra exposure to nicotine increases a teen’s risk of becoming addicted.

One tobacco habit not strongly associated with conventional smoking in teens: vaping. Currently, teen use of electronic cigarettes is just under 1 percent. But an especially troubling fact: That number is double what it was just one year earlier.

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