Nightly News   |  March 08, 2012

Staggering teen smoking epidemic

One in four high school seniors regularly smoke cigarettes according to a new report from the Surgeon General. NBC’s Dr. Nancy Snyderman reports.

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>>> good evening. and to put it bluntly, if you don't know by now the risks and hazards of cigarette smoking , you haven't been paying attention. either that or you've chosen to smoke against the evidence and advice. well, today we learn this. every day in this country 3,800 kids pick up their first cigarette. 80% of those who pick it up while in high school keep smoking and keep fighting it all their adult lives. the good news here is the overall number of teenagers smoking is down. the bad news and the alarming trend of the surgeon general who put out today's report, the rate of decline is slowing, meaning it's coming back a bit. it's where we begin tonight with our chief medical editor, dr. nancy snyderman .

>> reporter: 25-year-old paul myers has been smoking since he was 15. he has always liked the ritual.

>> i grew up as a musician. so i was always around kids that wanted to play music and smoke cigarettes.

>> reporter: he is one of the 88% of smokers who start in their teens and then are hooked as adults. a new report today from the surgeon general says teen smoking is an epidemic. 1 in 4 high school seniors regularly smoke cigarettes. while cigarette smoking has decreased over the decades, that decline has slowed.

>> the rate of decline in smoking has gone down over the last few years because government investment in anti-shoeking programs has actually gone down.

>> reporter: the numbers out today are staggering. 600,000 middle school students smoke along with 3 million high school students. most shocking, more than 1,200 americans die every day due to cigarettes. but for every death at least two young adults become regular smokers.

>> ironically, young kids are not that worried, teenagers are not that worried about long-term health consequences.

>> reporter: but they should be. because when you start younger, you're likely to be addicted longer.

>> cigarette smoke causes immediate damage.

>> reporter: underscored by a new commercial from the centers for disease control .

>> at 12 i smoked my first cigarette.

>> i was 15. i'll die of a heart attack.

>> reporter: and smoking affects young bodies in different ways. cardiovascular damage starts immediately. lung growth is stunted. and teens develop shortness of breath. and all of these problems can become permanent. tobacco giant altria says there is not a simple solution to underage tobacco use but agrees more work needs to be done. for paul myers , who's tried to quit a handful of times, he's worried about his future.

>> growing older and more mature, you kind of realize that it's something that i don't want to keep doing.

>> reporter: i've spent my adult life as a head and neck cancer surgeon, and there are three things i tell people who've come to see me. if you get a cancer in the mouth or your lungs, your esophagus, eating, breathing, talking, any one of those is likely to change forever and not for the good, brian.

>> and doesn't this come down to nicotine being the hook and everything else being a delivery system?

>> exactly right. nicotine brings you to the tent. it's what gets you hooked. but there are 7,000 chemicals in cigarettes. things like arsenic and cyanide. and it's those chemicals that kill you. but the nicotine is more addicting than heroin. it's a tough one to kick. so the thing is talk to your kids in kindergarten and get them to know never pick one up.

>> that's why it felt like half a step backward today i guess when this came out. dr. nancy snyderman , thank you as always.