U.S. Smoking Rates Continue to Drop

But cutbacks in state programs may undermine further reductions, experts warn

THURSDAY, May 26, 2005 (HealthDayNews) -- The number of U.S. adults who smoke continues to decline, federal health officials reported Thursday.

Using data from the 2003 National Health Interview Survey, which surveyed 30,852 adults, researchers estimate that 45 million adult Americans are smokers. That's 21.6 percent of the adult population.

The good news is this marks a decline from 22.5 percent in 2002 and 22.8 percent in 2001. In addition, the 46 million adults who have quit smoking now outnumber the people who continue to smoke. This is the second year in a row this has occurred, the researchers said.

"We found continued slow but steady progress in reducing adult smoking prevalence," said study co-author Dr. Dave Nelson, a senior scientific advisor at the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Nelson noted that the decline in smoking has been going on for the last 25 years.

The new report, which appears in the May 27 issue of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, contains some additional new findings.

"For the first time since we began collecting this data in 1965, smoking among women has declined below 20 percent," Nelson said.

In addition, the number of young adult smokers has also declined. "After some increases during the 1990s, this is the first time we have seen a decline in smoking among persons aged 18 to 24," Nelson said.

While overall the number of smokers in the United States has continued to drop, there are segments of the population where smoking is still rising. "There are still some groups that have higher smoking prevalence," Nelson said. "These include the lower educated, people below the poverty level, American Indians and Alaskan Natives," he said.

Nelson thinks these new statistics show that the effort to get people to stop smoking has been largely successful. "Our efforts are being successful over the long run," he said. "We have a pretty clear sense of what helps to reduce smoking prevalence. This includes a combination of comprehensive programs such as anti-smoking media campaigns, price increases, and cessation services."

Nelson also said the reduction in smoking among adults 18 to 24 is largely due to publicly funded efforts to reduce smoking. "We are reaping the rewards of the investments in programs that were strong in the late 1990s and the early part of this century," he said. "Unfortunately, states have drastically cut back on programs."

To encourage people to quit smoking, the CDC has a new phone number that can direct people to programs to help them quit, Nelson said. That number is: 1 800 QUIT NOW (1-800-784-8669).

Whether declines in smoking will continue at a desired rate is uncertain, Nelson said. "The good news is that it is continuing to follow a pattern," he said. "The bad news is that our 2010 national health goal is to get smoking prevalence down to 12 percent, and we're at 21.6 percent in 2003, so we don't think it is likely we are going to meet that goal."

One public health expert remains wary about declaring victory, despite what appears to be good news.

"In this report, we have the excellent news that smoking rates continue to fall in the United States," said Dr. David L. Katz, the director of the Prevention Research Center and an associate clinical professor of epidemiology and public health at Yale University School of Medicine.

"But just as there is opportunity in crisis, there is danger in early success -- the danger of complacency," Katz said. "Smoking remains a leading global killer, and a cause of incalculable suffering and cost. We should be gratified with what has been achieved, but reaffirm that we have not yet begun to fight. If we let up, this implacable foe will surely rebound."

More information

The National Cancer Institute can tell you more about quitting smoking.

SOURCES: Dave Nelson, M.D., M.S., senior scientific advisor, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Atlanta; David L. Katz, M.D., M.P.H., director, Prevention Research Center, associate clinical professor of epidemiology and public health, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, Conn.; May 27, 2005, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
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