Nearly 22 percent of U.S. high school students said they were smokers in 2003, down from more than 36 percent in 1997. The lowest previous smoking rate was in 1991, when 27.5 percent of students smoked.
In addition, a little more than 58 percent of students in 2003 said they tried smoking. More than 70 percent of students in 1999 said they tried it, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
The CDC study found that anti-tobacco efforts have been successful across the board, from curbing potential first-time smokers to reducing the ranks of the heaviest of smokers.
"We are reaching all the youth. If we can stop youth from becoming addicted smokers, eventually we can stop this epidemic," said Terry Pechanek, associate director of science for the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health.
"We're starting to turn the corner on that — we're making the progress we've been working toward for the last 40 years."
For the first time in more than two decades, the percentage of high school student smokers is lower than the percentage of adults who smoke (22.8 percent in 2003). Traditionally, the rate has always been higher for youngsters because more adults try to quit smoking as they age, Pechanek said.
The CDC said a 90 percent hike in cigarette prices between 1997 and 2003 helped deter cash-poor students from smoking. School-based and media campaigns against smoking also helped toward the decline, the CDC said.
But the government noted that other studies recently have warned the rate of decline in student smoking may be slowing.
The CDC blamed that on several factors, including more depictions of smoking in films and a near-doubling of tobacco advertising expenditures from cigarette makers ($5.7 billion in 1997 to $11.2 billion in 2001). Also, states are using less money from the major tobacco settlement between states and tobacco companies for tobacco prevention.
The government said that health officials will have to create effective anti-tobacco campaigns, including those that promote smoke-free homes and discourage family members or friends from giving cigarettes to youngsters.
The report also called for more non-smoking "role models," and to reduce depictions of tobacco on films and TV.
By Daniel Yee