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The first national survey of tobacco use in middle schools has found that one in eight students currently is experimenting with it -- the first hard evidence that many youngsters pick up the habit even before they go off to high school.

While cigarettes were the most popular choice -- with almost 10 percent smoking them within the past month -- surprisingly high numbers of middle school students smoked cigars and "bidis" and "kreteks," inexpensive tobacco products from Asia scented with chocolate, mango or cloves.

At the same time, the government announced that smoking among high schoolers has dropped for the first time since it began tracking the age group in 1991.

The new findings from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, collected in collaboration with the American Legacy Foundation, also came to the conclusion that African-American middle school students were using tobacco at the same rate as whites and Hispanics. This was an unpleasant surprise, researchers said, because considerably fewer African-American youngsters have traditionally used tobacco.

The survey found that 28.4 percent of high school students said they had smoked in the last month, 8 percent fewer than the last survey in 1997.

While numerous surveys have found disturbingly high rates of tobacco use among teen-agers in high school, the survey -- the broadest effort ever undertaken to examine adolescent tobacco use -- is the first to collect similar information about younger children in grades 6 through 9.

"As a parent, I find it shocking that in this group of young middle school children, so many are smoking cigarettes and using tobacco," said Michael Eriksen, director of the centers' Office on Smoking and Health.

The survey, which questioned 15,000 students at 130 locations in September and October, was also the first to quantify the use of cigars, pipes, smokeless "spit" tobacco, bidis and kreteks among middle and high school students. The children were asked whether they had used the tobacco products within the preceding month.

"The good news is that the survey supports other research finding that cigarette use for (high school students) has plateaued or is declining," Eriksen said. "But the bad news is that use of noncigarette products is fairly high."

Because the survey was the first of its kind, Eriksen said it could not be used conclusively to monitor trends in tobacco use. But he said the survey generally supports other research, which has found a recent small decline in cigarette use in teens.

"The study appears to confirm that there has been a meaningful drop in tobacco use in teens over the past two years," said Matthew L. Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "But still, smoking rates remain at near-record levels."

Mark Smith, a spokesman for the Brown & Williamson tobacco company, said his company was actively trying to prevent smoking among middle school students. He said that research has long found middle school is where many children begin to experiment with tobacco and that the survey found "a pretty disturbing rate of usage."

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