Decades-Long U.S. Decrease in Smoking Rates Levels Off

SOURCE: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention | The Washington Post - November 09, 2007
By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 9, 2007

The decades-long decline in smoking by Americans has stalled for three years, the first time smoking rates have leveled off for that long since the federal government began collecting statistics more than 40 years ago.

After more than a decade of steep decline, moreover, smoking rates for high school students also have hit a plateau in the past few years and even increased a bit. This comes amid controversy over the targeting of young women by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. with its Camel No. 9 cigarette -- which is packaged in "hot-pink fuchsia" and is advertised as "light and luscious."

Together, the data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention yesterday present a worrisome picture of smoking patterns, experts said, especially because the trend had been downward for so long.

"Anytime we are not seeing a decline, it's a cause of real concern to us," said Corinne Husten, head of the epidemiology branch of the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health. "Smoking is the biggest cause of preventable disease we have, and we need to bring down the rates as quickly as we possibly can."

According to the CDC report, about 20.8 percent of American adults are smokers -- with 80 percent of them (36.3 million people) smoking every day and the rest smoking on some days. Adult smoking rates declined more than 15 percent from 1997 to 2004 but have been stubbornly unchanged since.

Husten pointed to several probable reasons for the unwelcome news. Cigarette companies have been spending billions of dollars to offset tax increases and to discount their products, and funding has been cut sharply for several very successful state anti-smoking campaigns, she said.

Some anti-tobacco advocates said the Bush administration has not made tobacco control a priority and has not highlighted or promoted the issue. In part, they said, the stalled smoking rates are a result.

William V. Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said the administration has been "AWOL regarding tobacco control -- doing little or nothing." He said it is "inexcusable that elected leaders have not done more, given the overwhelming scientific evidence of what works to reduce tobacco use among both children and adults."

The relatively unchanged price of cigarettes since 2002 is considered important, because more people stop smoking because of cost than for any other single reason. That is especially true of younger smokers. While some states have increased tobacco taxes, the federal government has not raised its rate for more than a decade, and President Bush has strongly opposed a congressional proposal to increase the tax to expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

The administration has also been skeptical of a bill that would give the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate tobacco. FDA Commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach told Congress in October that the agency does not have the budget to take on the regulation of tobacco and has reservations about regulating a product known to be harmful.

Von Eschenbach said in a statement that "the bill could undermine the public health role of FDA." Two major reports this year, one by the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and another by the President's Cancer Panel, called for FDA regulation of tobacco.

The administration has also declined to send the World Health Organization's Framework Convention on Tobacco Control to the Senate for ratification. The treaty, signed by the United States in 2004, would require toughening of U.S. anti-smoking efforts. So far, more than 150 of the 168 nations that signed the treaty have ratified it, but the State Department has consistently said it is still studying the document.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company