Smoking among teens has dramatically decreased statewide, according to statistics released last week by the New York State Department of Health.
Due to the accomplishments of the Adolescent Tobacco Use Prevention Act and efforts which make it difficult for teens to purchase cigarettes, smoking among New York high school students has decreased 53 percent since 2000.
According to Nirav R. Shah, M.D., M.P.H., most smokers begin before they are 18, while half start smoking before the age of 15.
In Chautauqua County, the average age of first use of cigarettes is 12.4 years, according to the United Way.
Tobacco use by youth in Chautauqua County is higher than that of national peers for lifetime use in grades 8, 10 and 12 according to a survey performed by Chautauqua Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Council.
Overall, 5.1 percent of students reported using smokeless tobacco and 9.9 percent reported using cigarettes within 30 days prior to the survey. Use rates for both cigarettes and smokeless tobacco were higher in rural school districts.
However, the number of teen smokers has gradually decreased over time, and the Chautauqua County Health Department has contributed in the effort to make it difficult for minors to purchase cigarettes and other tobacco products.
"We send minors into stores that sell tobacco to attempt to purchase products," said Mark Stow, director of County Environmental Health Services.
If a retailer is fined for selling tobacco to a minor, the retailer's tobacco license receives points, similar to a driver's license with fines ranging from $350 to $1,550.
"If there are any points on a tobacco retailer's record, we do two additional compliance checks per year," Stow said. "If you have a violation, it stays on the record for three years. With an accumulation of three points (multiple violations) the tobacco license and lottery license are suspended for six months."
Of 112 retailers in the county, there were 10 reported sales of tobacco products to minors across Chautauqua County in 2013.
More than $27.6 million in fines have been levied against 38,018 retailers for selling tobacco to minors since 1997.
"I think tobacco retailers really take it seriously," Stow said, adding that stores such as Tops and Wegmans now ask for identification regardless of age when purchasing either cigarettes or alcohol. "I know a lot of retailers are taking that route and I think there will be a lot more of that as time goes on."
While tobacco addiction is the leading preventable cause of morbidity and mortality in New York state and the United States, it is projected that 389,000 people 17 or younger will eventually die from smoking-related illness.
Cigarette use, alone, results in an estimated 25,000 deaths each year in New York state. There are estimated to be 570,000 New Yorkers afflicted with serious disease directly attributable to smoking.