Last year, only 5% of high school sophomores said they had smoked cigarettes daily in the last 30 days, compared with 18% of sophomores who were smoking daily at one point in the 1990s. The numbers have also plunged for eighth-graders and high school seniors, hitting their lowest point since the surveys began.
The change is just one of the findings in a vast new report on the well-being of American children, compiled by the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics. The report drew together research from a host of government agencies and research groups, including the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which tracked cigarette smoking.
Besides being less likely to smoke, U.S. kids are less likely to be exposed to secondhand smoke, the report showed. The percentage of nonsmoking kids ages 4 to 11 whose blood had a detectable level of cotinine, a breakdown product of nicotine, fell from 53% to 42% from 2007-08 to 2009-10.
Danny McGoldrick, vice president for research for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, argued that tobacco taxes, laws limiting where people can smoke and tobacco-prevention programs helped cut down the numbers. But the surveys show progress has slowed in recent years, with teen smoking rates falling only slightly from 2011 to 2012.
“We need to invest in more of what has worked in the past to accelerate these declines,” McGoldrick said.
Other findings from the report included:
--Birth rates have continued to drop among teens, falling for the fourth year in a row, according to preliminary data. As of two years ago, there were 15 births for every 1,000 teenagers ages 15 to 17 – a striking decrease from four years earlier, when the rate was 22 per 1,000.
Laura Lindberg, senior research associate at the Guttmacher Institute, said fewer teens were having babies because they are having sex at a later age and using contraception more than in the past. "Teens have gotten the message that they need to be protecting themselves," she said.
--Last year, nearly a quarter of high school seniors reported binge drinking in the previous two weeks, a slight increase after earlier declines. The report defined binge drinking as consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in a row or during a single occasion.
--For the fifth year in a row, the percentage of U.S. babies being born preterm – before 37 weeks of gestation – has dropped. In 2011, it stood at 11.7%, compared with a high of 12.8% in 2006.
--Some things haven’t changed much: The percentage of children living in poverty didn’t budge from 2010 to 2011, according to the report. Child obesity rates also showed little improvement, though the most recent data included in the report were several years out of date.
The report, released Thursday, also laid out some basic facts about American children: The number of U.S. children dropped slightly in recent years, as more kids graduate into adulthood than are being born. Kids make up a shrinking share of the national population.
“The recession has really pushed the birth rate down,” said Kenneth Johnson, senior demographer at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. He estimated that at least a million fewer babies were born in the U.S. because of the economic downturn.
That smaller crop of American kids is increasingly racially diverse, and its diversity is expected to grow in the future. More are children of immigrants than in earlier years: Nearly 25% had at least one parent born outside the U.S., compared with 15% in 1994, the report noted.
Family structures are also changing. Last year, 64% of kids 17 or younger lived with two married parents, down from 77% in 1980. Single-parent households have become more common for children.