Cigarette smoking has reached the lowest level ever recorded among U.S. adults – and the youth smoking rate dropped even farther, the federal government reported Thursday.
About 14 percent of U.S. adults, or 34 million people, smoked cigarettes in the last 30 days, down from 15.5 percent in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Cancer Institute. The new rate represents a 67 percent decline since 1965.
About 10 percent of people aged 18 to 24 years smoked cigarettes in 2017, down from 13 percent in 2016.
That would be heralded as a public health success if so many young people weren’t become addicted to nicotine through electronic cigarettes, or vaping.
Nicotine use overall reflects this: About 20 percent of U.S. adults used a tobacco product last year, through e-cigarettes, chewing tobacco, cigarettes, cigars and hookah.
Cigarette smoking is the top preventable cause of death and disease in the United States, and is the biggest tobacco-related health problem.
About 16 million Americans have a smoking-related illness, and about 480,000 die each year. Eliminating smoking in America would eventually eliminate about a third of all cancer deaths, according to the National Cancer Institute.
David Ashley, a former official of the FDA and CDC, says the new numbers suggest “tobacco control efforts are still on the right track.”
Former FDA and CDC official David Ashley, a professor at Georgia State University’s School of Public Health, right, is shown on a teen vaping panel Nov. 1, 2018, sponsored by the advocacy group Truth Initiative. To his right is Dr. Milagros “Mila” Váscones-Gatski. She is a substance abuse counselor for Arlington Public Schools, and to her right is Cornell University student Jack Waxman, who started a group opposed to vaping at his school. (Photo: Davon Harris)
But smoking still has a strong grip on the disadvantaged and other groups, federal data show. More than 40 percent of adults who reported “serious psychological distress” used tobacco. About 27 percent in the LGBTQ community reported tobacco use.
“The persistent disparities in adult smoking prevalence described in this report emphasize the need for further research to accelerate reductions in tobacco use among all Americans,” says Dr. Norman Sharpless, director of the National Cancer Institute.
Vaping was supposed to help smokers transition away from cancer-causing tobacco, and so reduce the smoking rate. Vapers use e-cigarettes to inhale water vapor that contains nicotine.
But the practice has also drawn alarming numbers of non-smoking teens.
FDA Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb has said preliminary government data show teen vaping has reached “epidemic” levels.
He said in September that his agency would demand the major e-cigarette manufacturers prove they are doing enough to keep them out of the hands of children and teens.
He has threatened to halt sales by manufacturers who fail to comply. An announcement is expected in mid-November.
Ashley, now a professor at the Georgia State University School of Public Health, says data show that more than 80 percent of smokers who take up e-cigarettes don’t use them regularly.
These smokers either reject vaping and return to smoking exclusively or use both traditional and e-cigarettes – which dramatically reduces the benefits, Ashley says.
He says current trends raise “serious concerns.”
“Whether vaping will help reduce or will increase smoking from a population health standpoint is still to be determined,” he says. “More needs to be done to reduce the addictiveness of cigarettes and increase the effectiveness of e-cigarettes for helping smokers switch completely to achieve a more substantial public health benefit.”