High-Fives for Teens

It's what every parent wants to hear: Teens are doing less of the bad stuff.

Recent studies show fewer kids lured by the siren songs of sex, cigarettes, marijuana and alcohol. Tobacco smoking by 12th graders, for instance, is at its lowest level since 1975, according to the National Institute on Drug Addiction. And the number of high schoolers who say they're still virgins is up by 10 percent since 1991, say the Centers for Disease Control.

Abstinence in a whole host of areas is now cool, or at least cooler than it used to be.

But any parent also knows that what's in today can be so out by tomorrow that a kid who abstains could be shivering alone in the social ice-box of Siberia.

Each year brings a new set of children with a new set of values. Just because today's teens are holding back, doesn't mean next year's will. And just because the problem has lessened, doesn't mean it's gone.

These trends go in cycles, say social scientists, and it would be a mistake for the adults who influence young people to ease up now.

Unfortunately, one group of important players - government officials who set policy affecting children - is in danger of missing this lesson.

Under intense budget pressure, outgoing Massachusetts Gov. Jane Swift is slashing funding for the state's acclaimed anti-smoking campaign by $1 million. It doesn't sound like much, but on top of previous cuts, it virtually decimates the program.

Perhaps the governor was influenced by national statistics that show smoking among high-school seniors down 9.8 percent from its peak in 1997. But the fact is, one in four seniors still smoked last month.

Whether it's tobacco, sex, or drugs, kids today are bombarded with ads and educational programs about the dangers of indulgence in these areas. The campaigns, some of them showing pretty graphic results from such behavior, do prevent some teens from going down that road.

In the specific case of teen smoking, studies show one of the greatest deterrents is cost. A pack of cigarettes today retails nationwide for an average of $3.58. In New York City, a pack can cost upwards of $7.50. That's no small change to kids.

In this new era of government budget cuts, more than 20 states have moved to increase taxes on cigarettes in the last year. That's a more fiscally and morally responsible way to proceed than cutting campaigns that discourage kids from bad habits. At the very least, states can hold the line on spending in these areas.

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