03/08/2012 10:14 am ET Updated May 08, 2012

Preventing Tobacco Use Among Youth and Young Adults

Over the last four decades, we've seen a steady decline in the percentage of Americans who smoke. In 1965, over 42 percent of Americans smoked, but by 2004, that number had fallen to just under 21 percent.

For all of the progress we've made, tobacco use remains the biggest single threat to Americans' health. It kills an estimated 443,000 Americans each year, and for every tobacco-related death two new young people under the age of 26 become regular smokers.

Today, we are releasing the 2012 Surgeon General's report on tobacco use among youth and young adults, which brings more troubling news. This is the first Surgeon General's report since 1994 to examine tobacco use among young adults ages 18 through 25, as well as the causes and consequences of tobacco use among youth and young adults. And it shows us just what we're up against.

Across the country, there are middle school students developing deadly tobacco addictions before they can even drive a car. And the younger they are when they try tobacco, the more likely they are to get addicted and the more heavily addicted they will become. Each day, more than 3,800 kids under 18 smoke their first cigarette. Overall, more than 600, 000 middle school students and more than 3 million high school students smoke cigarettes, while 1.7 million adolescents use smokeless tobacco products or cigars.

One child picking up a tobacco product is one too many, and while these numbers are completely unacceptable, they are no surprise: More than $1 million an hour is spent to market cigarette products in this country.

In light of this, we are changing the way we rid our communities of tobacco. The Obama Administration pushed legislation that makes it harder for tobacco companies to market to kids. That legislation was debated in Congress for many years, and we got it passed. We have also restricted companies from using terms like "light" or "mild" on products and in marketing. And we have banned certain candy- and fruit-flavored cigarettes.

We're also supporting local programs to help people quit smoking and stop people from starting. As part of the new health care law, we gave Americans better access to counseling to help them quit smoking. Around the country, we've seen states join in this fight, with 25 states and Washington, D.C. passing smoke-free laws in their public spaces.

Over the last three years, we've made significant strides in our fight against tobacco, and our efforts are paying off. But today's report is an important reminder to our nation that we have a lot more work to do to make tobacco death and disease part of our past, and no longer part of our future.

For more by Sec. Kathleen Sebelius, click here.

For more on smoking, click here.