A report released Thursday by the U.S. Surgeon General's office on tobacco use by our youth shows that there's much work to be done in our anti-tobacco efforts.

Since the last report issued in 1994, smoking among high school students has declined by about 3 million students, but that trend has slowed in recent years. About 5.2 percent, or 600,000 middle school students are current smokers and almost one in five high school-aged teens smokes. The number is down from earlier decades, but that rate of decline too has slowed.

The current trend sends ominous signals. The report says that every day, more than 3,800 people under the age of 18 smoke their first cigarette and even more shocking is the fact that over 1,000 of them become daily smokers. These new tobacco converts replace the 1,200 people who die each day in the U.S. from smoking.

"Too many of our children are addicted, too many cannot quit, and too many go on to die far too young," Assistant Secretary for Health Howard Koh warned during his news conference.

The bottom line is that we must continue educating young smokers on the long-term consequences.

Baby boomers grew up during a time when there was no stigma attached to smoking. Contracted to tobacco companies for advertising, many Hollywood celebrities and professional athletes of the 1950s were regularly telling us how cool it was to light up.

Some shows sponsored by tobacco companies even required that hosts smoke on the air. Even on the legendary 1950s sitcom I Love Lucy, stars Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Vivian Vance, and William Frawley, were sometimes shown with a cigarette.

Edward R. Murrow, a pioneer of TV news broadcasting, smoked up to four packs of Camels per day. Cigarettes were like a stage prop on his broadcasts.

When The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson first aired in 1962, just about everyone smoked on-camera during the show. Even after smoking on television became unfashionable in the mid-1980s, Carson still kept a cigarette box on his desk until his final broadcast in 1992.

John Wayne, the most iconic actor of his day, was known to be a legendary chain smoker and regularly appeared in cigarette ads.

A print ad for Camel cigarettes shows a picture of Wayne with the headline, "With Stars who must think of their throats, it's Cool, Mild Camels!"

Wayne then states: "The roles I play are far from easy on my voice! Camels suit my throat to a 'T'!"

In another ad, Wayne, with cigarette in hand, is shown leaning back in a cane chair in a country cabin setting. The headline reads: "John Wayne … a Camel fan goin' on 24 years!"

Below the headline is a hand-written note from The Duke himself:

"…in all that time, a man learns how to enjoy smoking for mildness, for flavor, for pure pleasure. It's kind of gratifying to see that my cigarette is America's choice, too," he says.

That thinking would change.

After being diagnosed with lung cancer in 1964 and stomach cancer in 1979, Wayne blamed his six-pack-a-day cigarette habit. In June 1979, he died from cancer at the age of 72.

In the 1980s, Wayne's family created the John Wayne Cancer Foundation and later, the John Wayne Cancer Institute, to help fight cancer with awareness and education programs and cancer research.

The Duke would have been proud of that moment.

If only he was alive to see it.

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com