Smoking rate continues to decline among U.S. adults

Fewer than 15% of U.S. adults currently smoke, according to new preliminary government statistics from the first half of this year. This is even lower than a report released just last week that found 16.8% of adults were smoking in 2014. The 14.9% rate is the lowest reported since this survey began in 1997, when 24.7% of U.S. adults were smokers.

The new calculation is from the National Health Interview Survey, released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, capture smoking prevalence between January and June of this year.

A closer look shows that from 1997 to 2004 there was a steady decline but then there was a plateau until 2009 when the current downward trend began to fall again, as noted by CDC Director Tom Frieden. He points out that 2009 was when tobacco taxes increased and when the FDA began regulating tobacco. Also of note was the 2012 launch of a graphic anti-smoking campaign from the CDC, which is credited with preventing 16,000 tobacco-related deaths. The overlap is no coincidence. Studies have shown these actions, plus other steps such as smoking bans, work.

Frieden called the new report encouraging but cautioned that smoking is still the leading cause of preventable death in the United States. There are still 40 million adults who smoke and 20 million will die prematurely unless they stop.

So, who is still smoking 52 years after the U.S. surgeon general first warned the nation about the harms of lighting up? According to the report, more men than women. And the habit seems to be more appealing among younger individuals because people ages 18-44 (16.3%) and 45-64 (16.7%) are more likely than those age 65 and up to smoke. When broken down by race, more white and black non-Hispanics (17%) smoke than their Hispanic peers (9.7%).

“We know that most people who smoke today began smoking as kids, about 80-90%. Most want to quit, most try to quit,” Frieden said.

Of concern to Frieden is the rise of new forms of tobacco use, including electronic cigarettes and hookahs, which are not regulated. They are easily available, including to children, who are trying them and becoming addicted.

Health officials hope the percentage of individuals who smoke will drop to 12% or less by the year 2020.

And there’s plenty of motivation to get there. “Half of smokers are killed by tobacco if they don’t quit and the other half feel 10 years older,” Frieden said. And the cost for those who live: an additional $300 billion annually in the United States.