Declines in U.S. Smoking Rates Remain Stalled at 20%

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REUTERS/JP Moczulski

An office worker enjoys a cigarette in downtown Toronto February 19, 2007. Canada's three major tobacco companies' legal challenge to a government ban on sponsorship and advertising will be heard Monday in the Supreme Court of Canada. REUTERS/J.P. Moczulski (CANADA)

For the fifth year in a row, the decline in smoking rates among adult Americans remains stalled. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 20% of adults still smoke, a figure that hasn’t changed since 2005.

The latest data on tobacco use reveals that more men than women currently light up, and that poverty and lower educational attainment are associated with greater cigarette use.

But even more disturbing, says Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, is the data on secondhand-smoke exposure. The agency’s Vital Signs report, released Tuesday, found that 88 million nonsmokers, or 40% of all nonsmokers in the U.S., are exposed to tobacco smoke. While this represents a decline from the 52.5% exposed during the 1999-2000 period, “40% is still too high,” Frieden told reporters during a telebriefing. “Secondhand smoke kills, and there is no safe level of secondhand smoke exposure.” Studies have recently found that even minimal exposure to secondhand tobacco smoke can alter genes in cells in the airway, which may predispose them to become cancerous.

Most secondhand smoke exposure is now occurring in the home, which has become the last bastion for smokers after extensive bans on lighting up have cleared the air in restaurants, airplanes, shopping malls and other public places. That’s especially troubling since home is where children spend most of their time, and are now encountering their biggest dose of tobacco smoke. In the report, scientists found that 98% of children living in a home with a parent who smoked showed levels of cotinine, a tobacco toxin, in their blood.

The data, said Frieden, points out that antismoking efforts need to be reactivated in areas where they are faltering, and that everyone needs to be reminded of the dangers of tobacco smoke, even for nonsmokers. The tobacco industry, he said, is finding ways to bypass stricter regulations on tobacco advertisements, by creating new products that appeal to younger smokers, but he noted that states that invested in aggressive antismoking programs saw significant declines in smoking and lung cancer incidence as a result. In California, for example, smoking rates dropped by 40% from 1998 to 2006, and lung cancer cases in the state have been falling four times faster than in the rest of the country.

The national smoking rate of 20% is still off the government’s Healthy People 2010  goal of a less than 12% rate, and with tobacco-related health care costs estimated at $193 billion, said Frieden, “this is a clarion call that there is no time like the present to quit.”