Smoking rates drop in US, but not by much

Despite national and state efforts to raise tobacco taxes, increase awareness of cigarettes’ health risks, and ban smoking in public places, the decline in smoking in the United States has slowed dramatically over the past five years, according to a report released today by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Smoking girl

Girl with a burning cigarette in a hand

“The decline was very gradual,” CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden said in a media briefing. “But those who smoked heavily fell substantially,” he said, while the number of light smokers, who smoked half a pack a day or less, increased.

In 2010, an estimated 19.3 percent of Americans smoked, down from 20.9 percent in 2005. The percentage of smokers who puffed on nine or fewer cigarettes a day rose to 21.8 percent in 2010 from 16.4 percent in 2005, while the percentage of heavy smokers — 30 or more cigarettes per day — fell from 12.7 percent to 8.3 percent.

Still, health officials emphasize that light smokers also face the health hazards of heart disease, lung cancer, and strokes. “The latest research leaves us less impressed with the health benefits that people accrue from cutting down on smoking ,” said Dr. Tim McAfee, director of the CDC Office on Smoking and Health. “We see much more dramatic benefits from people quitting altogether.”

Massachusetts has enjoyed a pretty steady decline in smoking rates over the past five years — from 18.1 percent in 2005 to 14.1 percent in 2010 — as have most of the other New England states.

Smoke-free laws enacted in Mass. seven years ago and a high cigarette tax — which currently stands at $2.51 per pack — may have contributed to the drop. These efforts, as well as support for those who wish to quit and education on smoking’s risks, all help to drive down smoking rates, said Friedan.

“There’s a misperception that we’ve reached an irreducible minimum for smoking rates, and that’s very far from the truth,” he added. “We know it’s possible to drive down tobacco rates substantially more than we have already.”

While the CDC recommends that states fund smoking cessation programs with 10 to 15 percent of their revenue generated each year from tobacco company settlement funds and cigarette taxes, only one state, North Dakota, met that recommendation. Massachusetts spent just $4.5 million on programs like anti-smoking advertising campaigns and toll-free quit lines in 2011 – barely 5 percent of the CDC’s recommended amount.

The federal government has set a goal to lower national smoking rates down to 12 percent by the year 2020, which looks highly unlikely given that smoking rates in many tobacco-growing southern states hover well above 20 percent. In Kentucky, nearly 25 percent of residents still smoke — similar to the rate in Massachusetts back in the late 1980s.

Smoking regulations in southern states are far more lax than in other parts of the country. On the flip side, California – one of the first states to implement anti-smoking laws more than a decade ago – has one of the lowest smoking rates in the nation: 12 percent

But laws can’t completely fix the problem. McAfee said cigarette taxes appear to be having less of an impact than expected due to discounts implemented by the tobacco industry in the form of cheaper prices per pack or coupons mailed directly to consumers. And Friedan added that CDC studies have shown that cigarettes have become more addictive in terms of how they’re designed to deliver more nicotine per puff – which can make it more difficult for smokers to quit.

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