The average age at which cigarette users start to smoke regularly has risen. Although the figures dropped from 45% of adults smoking cigarettes in the 1960s to 14% today, and teen smoking declined to 2.4% by 2019, results of a recent study show an upward trend of underage tobacco use in young adults.  

Of the 71,756 young adults aged 22–23 years who participated in the study, the number of smokers who initiated cigarette smoking in early adulthood more than doubled from 2002–2018. Also, the number of cigarette smokers who transitioned to daily smoking in early adulthood increased from 38.7% in 2002 to 55.9% in 2018.

People aged 22–23 years who had never smoked all or part of a cigarette decreased from 75% to 51% during the study period, and the proportion of those who never engaged in daily smoking for a period of at least 30 days decreased from 41% to 20%.

“For a long time, people have talked about how, if we can just get kids past the age of 18 without smoking cigarettes, they’re home free,” Jessica Barrington-Trimis, PhD, who led the study, said. “That’s a flawed way of looking at things today.”

In previous studies, researchers had found that almost 90% of adult daily cigarette smokers first tried smoking before the age of 18. As a result, teenagers have been the primary target for smoking prevention efforts, Barrington-Trimis explained.

Her most recent study analyzed more than 20 years of data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health and showed that tobacco use has dramatically increased because of access and aggressive marketing to an underage population, even if big tobacco companies claim otherwise.

The study highlights “an emerging need for tobacco control efforts to further focus on reducing cigarette smoking among young adults,” Ollie Ganz, DrPH, and Cristine Delnevo, PhD, wrote in an accompanying editorial. “We think it is important to recognize that these findings are the results of a larger public health success of dramatic reductions in youth and young adult smoking.”