Drop in Smoking Rates Stalls

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 27, 2006

The battle against tobacco in the United States appears to have stalled, with the number of adults who smoke cigarettes hitting a plateau after declining steadily for eight years, federal health officials reported yesterday.

The proportion of adults who smoke held steady at 20.9 percent in the most recent national survey of cigarette habits, conducted in 2005. It was the first time the rate did not fall from one year to the next since 1997, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reported.

The stall coincides with a similar leveling-off in smoking rates among teenagers, suggesting that the steady progress against the leading cause of preventable death has hit a wall.

Health officials blamed the trend on a combination of factors, including states cutting back on anti-smoking programs, the price of cigarettes rising more slowly and increased advertising by tobacco companies.

"Cigarette smoking is still the major cause of preventable death in this country," said Ann M. Malarcher of the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health. "We're not making the progress we need to make in terms of preventing smoking-related illness and death."

The new numbers were met with alarm by public health advocates and anti-smoking activists, who noted that smoking-related illness kills more than 400,000 Americans each year.

"This is very disturbing," said Erika Schlachter of the American Lung Association. "We know what it takes to reduce smoking rates, but we as a country have not yet done that."

The proportion of adults who smoke had dropped every year since 1997, when the rate was 24.7 percent. But that stopped in 2005, according to the 2005 National Health Interview Survey, which involved face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 31,428 people age 18 and older. The survey found that 20.9 percent of adults -- or 45.1 million Americans -- are smokers, which is the same as in 2004, according to a report in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

A second report found that smoking rates varied widely around the country, from a high of 28.7 percent in Kentucky to a low of 11.5 percent in Utah. Locally, the rates were 19 percent in Maryland, 20.6 percent in Virginia and 20.1 percent in the District.

Nationally, men are still more likely to smoke than women -- 23.9 vs. 18.1 percent. American Indians and Alaskan Natives had the highest rate at 32.0 percent, followed by whites (21.9 percent) and blacks (21.5 percent).

One reason for the stall in the decline in smoking is that the amount of money being spent on anti-smoking campaigns has fallen 26.5 percent from 2002 to 2006, the CDC said. States are using money from a landmark $246 billion settlement with the tobacco industry in 1998 for other purposes.

"A lot of the very effective programs got wiped out and cut back," said Joseph DiFranza, a smoking researcher at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. "Now we're seeing the result -- progress we'd been making is getting stalled."

At the same time, tobacco industry spending on advertising and promotional activities, including price cuts, more than doubled, from $6.7 billion in 1998 to $15.1 billion in 2003, the CDC said.

The stall prompted advocates to renew calls for states to spend more money on anti-smoking efforts and for Congress to pass legislation to have the Food and Drug Administration regulate tobacco.

"For the sake of our nation's health, we cannot become complacent about reducing tobacco use," said William V. Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a Washington-based advocacy group. "We know what works to reduce smoking among both youths and adults. What's needed is the political will to implement those proven solutions as aggressively as the tobacco companies continue to market their deadly and addictive products."

A spokesman said Philip Morris USA has been trying to help smokers quit by providing information about smoking cessation. "We agree with public health authorities that the best way to reduce the health effects of smoking is to quit or not to smoke in the first place," spokesman Steve Callahan said.

Separately, the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group, released a poll yesterday that found 45 percent of Americans support making cigarettes illegal.

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