Wed., September 8, 2010 5:18pm (EDT)

America Hits Wall In Smoking Fight, But Some States Make Progress
By Scott Hensley
Updated: 4 years ago

The latest figures on smoking rates in this country are out. And the news is not good.

Last year, 20.6 percent of adults in the United States were smokers, according to survey data crunched by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's exactly the same proportion as found in 2008.

Despite higher taxes on cigarettes, restrictions on tobacco advertising and lots of help for people who want to quit, there's been little progress in reducing smoking rates lately. "Year-to-year decreases in smoking prevalence have been observed only sporadically in recent years," the CDC notes.

How come? Well, one key group to watch is kids. Most adult smokers started before they turned 19. Last year, 19.5 percent of high school kids smoked, only 2.4 percentage points lower than in 2003.

We checked in with Matthew Myers, head of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, who said the latest data for the nation hold both disappointment and hope.

"We've stalled because we're not doing what we know works -- not because we don't know how to get lower," he told Shots.

There's been sustained progress in states that have continued to raise taxes on cigarettes, support mass media campaigns against smoking and help quitters, he says.

Take a look at New York, Washington State and California, he says, where smoking rates are below the national averages. In fact, if you'd really like to dig in, check out the section of CDC's website devoted to state data to see how things are going where you live.

Dr. Steven Schroeder, director of the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center at the University of California, San Francisco, suggests that another reason for hope is that people who smoke are lighting up less often.

"Although the number of smokers hasn't changed, they're smoking less," he says, "It says to me that it's very hard for smokers to quit," but that increased taxes show smokers do respond to higher prices.

In a piece for the New England Journal of Medicine this summer, Schroeder and a colleague called on people not to let health overhaul and other hot health topics distract people from the continuing battle against tobacco.

Sure lots of progress has been made, they wrote, and "it is tempting to believe that the battle is largely won and that we should move on to other pressing public health issues." But as the latest data confirm, about 1 in 5 people in the the United States still smoke. Each year that leads to the premature death of about 450,000 Americans. [Copyright 2010 National Public Radio]