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Nearly 2 million fewer Americans are lighting up

by Julia Dilday
Nov 13, 2008

No Smoking

The number of adult smokers in the U.S. is down for the first time in four years, according to a survey released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2007, 43.4 million, or 19.8 percent of adults in the U.S. identified themselves as smokers, according to the National Health Interview Survey, published by the CDC. More men than women surveyed identified themselves as smokers.

CDC officials called this a small but significant drop from the 20.8 percent (45.3 million people) of the adult population in the U.S. who identified themselves as smokers in 2006. Education and treatment accessibility are the two major factors contributing to the decrease.

“Seventy percent of people who smoke want to quit,” said Dr. Matthew McKenna, director of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health. “Being in environments where lots of other people are smoking makes it more difficult for them.”

That’s why McKenna said the Surgeon General’s 2006 report on the dangers of secondhand smoke was so beneficial to people trying to quit. The report led state and local governments – including Illinois – to implement smoke-free zones in public places such as restaurants.

McKenna said another contributing factor may have been the 2006 implementation of a national system of  "quitlines," 1-800-QUIT-NOW, which directs callers to local professionals who can help them kick the habit.

“Nicotine addiction is one of the most powerful types of substance addictions,” McKenna said. “Getting professional help through medications and counseling is critical in trying to help people, and can increase their probability of quitting, as opposed to trying to do it by themselves, three-to-fourfold.”

The American Cancer Society said that higher cigarette prices – a pack now goes for an average of $4.32, not including all the taxes – might also have impacted peoples’ decisions to quit.

The most significant decrease in adult smokers was among African-Americans, where smokers dropped from 23 percent of the population in 2006 to 19.8 in 2007.

The CDC did not release individual state data for 2007 in Thursday's report, but 2006 data shows that the number of adult smokers in Illinois was slightly below the national average. Illinois has been “smoke-free” since Jan. 1, 2008.

Smoking causes 438,000 deaths in the United States each year, including 38,000 deaths in nonsmokers, according to the American Cancer Society. With links to lung disease, pulmonary disease, strokes, heart attacks and 30 percent of all cancers, smoking is the largest preventable cause of disease and premature death in the country, the society said.

“If [people] stop smoking, their risks of those conditions drop almost immediately, particularly with heart disease and stroke,” McKenna said. “Within a year, their risk is cut in half and, within 10 years, it’s back as though they never smoked before.”

McKenna added that no matter how old you are, you can still reap the benefits of quitting smoking. “Even at age 65, if you stop smoking and have been smoking your whole life, you can add two to five years to your life expectancy.”

McKenna said it is just as important for casual or “social” smokers to quit because health risks jump even with minimal smoking. 

“Smoking still costs the U.S about $193 billion a year in terms of lost productivity and direct medical costs,” McKenna said. The two cost Illinois $7.4 billion a year, according to the American Cancer Society. McKenna added that state spending on educational programs and quitlines is “miniscule” in comparison and will quickly pay for themselves.

Even with this indication of progress, a CDC press release said that the U.S. is likely to fall short of its projected goal for 2010. The goal, outlined in Healthy People 2010, a decade-long initiative established at the beginning of the century, was to cut the number of adult smokers in the U.S. in half, from 24 percent in 1998 to 12 percent in 2010.

Next Thursday will mark the American Cancer Society’s 33rd Great American Smokeout. Smokers are encouraged to try quitting for at least one day to prove that quitting is possible. Prospective quitters can receive free counseling on the society’s national quitline, 1-800-227-2345 .

Those wishing to quit may also contact the Illinois Department of Public Health quitline, at 1-866-QUIT-YES ( 1-866-784-8937 ), weekdays between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m.