Despite smoking levels declining among ACT secondary students, 35 per cent of local female students aged 16 or 17-years-old have smoked cigarettes in a trend that has ACT Health concerned.
According to the latest ACT Health report of secondary students using tobacco, only 23 per cent of boys in that age bracket admitted to having smoked a cigarette before but its the female age bracket that is bucking the declining trend.
When asked the question: “Have you smoked in the last year, last month and last week?”, girls consistently reported higher levels of smoking than boys across all of the age categories.
The 2017 data also showed that 10 per cent of girls had admitted to using roll-your-own tobacco compared to six per cent of boys.
On World No Tobacco Day, Acting Chief Health Officer Dr Kerryn Coleman said the data suggests that anti-tobacco initiatives need to be ramped up to target girls in particular with the battle to steer teenagers away from smoking far from over.
“This worrying statistic for teenage girls should raise alarm bells,” she said. “There are many factors which influence why kids tend to pick up a cigarette and some of those factors are what their parents or other important role models in their lives or their peers are doing.
“Girls can be more susceptible to influences than boys around that age bracket. We know that people who have a harder life, whether that be family life or living conditions, they do experience higher levels of smoking.”
Dr Coleman said another major concern is the “insidious marketing” of e-cigarettes, which are currently not regulated under federal tobacco advertising and plain packaging legislation.
“The horse has bolted on these products touted as ‘nicotine-free’. In fact, many of these e-products contain unlabelled nicotine,” she said. “These products are advertised as enticing with promotions such as berry, candy cream and blueberry lemonade fruit pop flavours.
“What is really disturbing is how these products are clearly targeting young people with packaging that is attractive to the teenage market in particular.
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“We know that up to 80 per cent of adult smokers actually started smoking before they were 18 years of age so it is really important to not get into the habit when you are 16 or 17-years-old.”
Dr Coleman said there was good news from the study however, with data showing a significant decrease in the prevalence of smoking in ACT teenagers aged between 12-17 years in the last couple of decades.
In 1996, 56 per cent of ACT teenagers said they have tried smoking. This significantly dropped to 14 per cent in 2017, which is less than the national estimate of 18 per cent.
The Australian Health Policy Collaboration, comprising more than 50 of Australia’s leading health organisations, has set a five per cent target for smoking rates by 2025, which Dr Coleman said is achievable if underage smokers are addressed in a targetted campaign.
“We have done some really good work with general population health initiatives,” she said. “The raising of the cost of cigarettes have had a really good effect but our main attention should now be on trying to stop children and young people taking up cigarettes.
“That is where we can have the most impact.”