In a survey of more than 16,000 students nationwide, nearly 36 percent who had ever smoked said their smoking escalated to at least a cigarette per day, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
Nearly 73 percent with a daily habit said they had tried to quit. But only 13.5 percent successfully stopped.
"That's strictly a testimony to the power of nicotine," said Michael Eriksen, director of the CDC's Office of Smoking and Health. "We were really struck by how this little drama of tobacco addiction really is completely played out before high school graduation."
The CDC report was released as Congress debates anti-smoking legislation that would raise taxes on cigarettes and levy stiff fines against tobacco companies if teen smoking rates fail to drop significantly.
According to American Lung Association statistics, West Virginia has the largest percentage of high school student smokers in the country. About 43 percent of the state's teen-agers smoke, compared with 34.6 percent nationally.
The Tobacco Institute, the lobbying arm of the tobacco industry, had no immediate response to the study.
Seventy percent of students surveyed said they had tried cigarettes at least once. The percentage is probably higher among teens overall because the survey did not include dropouts, Eriksen said.
Previous studies had estimated between 33 and 50 percent of people who experiment with cigarettes become regular smokers.
But now researchers can show that smokers develop a pattern of nicotine addiction and a desire to quit in their teens, Eriksen said.
"They started to smoke because they want an image, they want to make a statement, they get seduced by the advertising," he said. "But after a few years they realize it is costly, it is messy, it interferes with performance and it no longer gives them the cachet it gave them when they were 12 to 13 years old."
Students in all 50 states were surveyed in 1997. Students were considered daily smokers if they had ever smoked at least once a day for a period of 30 days. The report counted former smokers as those who had quit for at least 30 days before they were surveyed.
Written by Russ Bynum