POLITICS

The U.S. Smoking Rate Just Hit A Historic Low

It's down to 15 percent of adults, new study says.
A new survey found the percentage of American adults who are using cigarettes on a regular basis dropped almost 2 percen
A new survey found the percentage of American adults who are using cigarettes on a regular basis dropped almost 2 percentage points from the results of a similar survey in 2014.

Chalk up another big win for public health: The smoking rate among U.S. adults appears to have hit a new low.

New survey data, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Tuesday morning, suggests that just 15.2 percent of American adults are now using cigarettes on a regular basis. That smoking rate is nearly 2 percentage points lower than what the same survey reported for calendar year 2014. 

The basis for the findings are responses to the National Health Interview Survey, which the Census Bureau operates on behalf of the CDC and is among the most reliable instruments government has for measuring health habits and status. The data is preliminary, because it comes from January through March and the smoking rate might yet creep up before the year ends. Among other factors, people have been known to quit in January, after making a New Year’s resolution, and then resume a few months later.

But even allowing for that possibility, and the margin of error that all surveys have, it’s likely the adult smoking rate for the full 2015 calendar year will be lower than it was in 2014.

“This result is absolutely exciting and maybe even astonishing, if this decrease holds up when we see data for the full year,” Kenneth Warner, a professor of health policy and management at the University of Michigan, told The Huffington Post.

Warner, who is among the nation's leading experts on tobacco and anti-smoking policy, explained: "With smoking responsible for 500,000 American deaths every year -- one-fifth of all deaths -- every decrease in smoking prevalence of this magnitude will ultimately translate into many thousands of premature deaths being avoided. This is a great development for public health."

This year’s reduction is part of a long-term trend that dates back at least 50 years, to when the surgeon general published a landmark report identifying smoking as a health hazard.

Since that time, officials and public health advocates have been waging the policy equivalent of a full-court press against smoking. That campaign has included: 

  • raising taxes on cigarettes, so they are expensive for people to buy
  • publicizing the health hazards of smoking and challenging tobacco companies, through congressional hearings and litigation, when those companies have downplayed or denied the dangers
  • waging public education campaigns, with a particular emphasis on reaching young people
  • encouraging the entertainment community to stop making smoking seem glamorous
  • lobbying for and winning enactment of laws that restrict smoking in public places

Of course, some portion of the people who no longer smoke cigarettes have probably switched to using electronic cigarettes, the health effects of which remain the subject of intense debate even among scholars and anti-smoking activists. But experts who spoke to The Huffington Post were confident that the ongoing reduction in smoking means that American adults are, on the whole, healthier -- and that further reductions in smoking would produce even more gains. 

"It's gratifying to see continued progress," said Harold Pollack, a professor at the University of Chicago and expert on public health. "We still have a long way to go -- both domestically and across the globe -- in addressing our most widespread preventable cause of death, disability, and illness."

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