FDA Study Confirms Youth Reliance on Social Sources

Only 14% of youths surveyed reported buying cigarettes themselves

MINNEAPOLIS -- The initial findings of the long-term Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health (PATH) study sponsored by the National Institute of Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) confirm that a significant majority of underage youth relies on social sources for cigarettes and other tobacco products.

minors smoking cigarettes

Generally, social sources include older siblings, friends, parents and even strangers. Over the past several years, NATO has urged local and state lawmakers and health policy advocates to work with retailers to respond to and help solve the issue of social sources to reduce youth access to tobacco products.

According to the PATH study, 86% of 15- to 17-year-olds obtained cigarettes by giving someone else money to buy cigarettes (32%), buying cigarettes from another person or taking cigarettes from someone or from a retail store (7%), asking someone else for cigarettes or being offered cigarettes from someone (43%) or obtaining cigarettes from some other nonretail source (5%). Only 14% of these underage youth reported buying cigarettes themselves. (Numbers add up to 101% due to rounding). 

For electronic cigarettes, 15- to 17-year-olds reported that 89% of the time they relied on social sources, including giving someone else money to buy e-cigarettes (17%), buying e-cigarettes from another person or taking e-cigarettes from someone or from a retail store (6%), asking someone else for e-cigarettes or being offered e-cigarettes from someone (57%) or obtaining e-cigarettes from some other nonretail source (10%). Only 11% of these underage youth reported buying e-cigarettes themselves. 

The PATH study began in 2013 and will continue through 2022, and its purpose is to gain a better understanding of tobacco use behaviors. The study is following 46,000 U.S. residents ages 12 and older who use and do not use tobacco products. In the future, the FDA may use findings from the PATH study to propose additional tobacco regulations.

The PATH study findings are virtually the same findings as a study published in August 2014 in the Journal of School Health titled “Usual Source of Cigarettes and Alcohol Among US High School Students.” This earlier study found that 85.9% of underage youth obtained cigarettes from sources other than buying cigarettes in a retail store. 

The Journal of School Health study examined the usual source of cigarettes among youth younger than 18 who were current cigarette smokers. Based on high school student responses, the two most common sources of cigarettes for underage youth were borrowing or “bumming” cigarettes from someone else (27.7%) and giving someone else money to buy cigarettes (27.3%). Other sources included buying cigarettes in a store (14.1%), having someone older than 18 give them cigarettes (10.1%), taking cigarettes from a family member or store (6.1%), buying cigarettes in a vending machine (1.3%) or getting cigarettes some other way (13.5%).

What the PATH study and Journal of School Health study do not address are recommended measures to reduce the supply of cigarettes from the “social sources” that minors rely on to obtain tobacco products. To further prevent youth access to tobacco, there needs to be a proactive effort educating adults not to be a social source of tobacco products. Adopting further regulations and restrictions on retailers in an attempt to reduce underage youth smoking will be minimally effective given that 86% of youth under the age of 18 who use tobacco products obtain the products from sources other than retail stores.

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