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Decline in US Adult Smoking Levels Off

For at least three decades, Americans have been encouraged to put down their cigarettes and quit the habit -- for at least one day [November 15th]. The Great American Smokeout, as the day is called, is designed to raise awareness about the health risks of smoking. VOA's Melinda Smith looks at where the anti-smoking campaign is now.

For seven years, the rate of smoking in the United States had declined. But for the second year in a row, that rate of decline has stalled. There is some good news however: there are now more former smokers in the United States than there are current smokers.

But the story is not as good in some other parts of the world. Thomas Glynn, an international tobacco expert, says, "We have more smokers in China than there are people in the United States. India is beginning to increase, although it's still fairly low. South Asia...Vietnam, Cambodia and so on...also have very high rates. Where we have an opportunity for prevention is in Africa.In Russia it's considered probably the leading cause [of death] because the life expectancy of men is actually going down."

There has been a lot said about the health hazards of smoking, but here it is again from an impeccable source: the World Health Organization says tobacco is the second major cause of death in the world. That translates to about one in every ten adults and the WHO says if current rates continue, the number of deaths could double by the year 2020.

Glynn says health problems associated with smoking are already reaching crisis proportions in China. "Right now they have nearly one million lung cancer cases alone each year due to tobacco use, and in just 15 years, they're going to have two million cases a year. That will literally overwhelm their health care system."

So what is being done to help smokers stop before their health spins out of control? Nicotine replacement medications are readily available in the United States and many European countries. But those medications are not as widely available or affordable in Asia and Africa.

Glynn says nicotine is very addictive, and can draw a person in as quickly as heroin or cocaine. "It's a very fast acting and very fast dropping drug -- meaning that you continually need more of it in order to keep the levels high and to keep the energy that you do feel from it."

Glynn and other health experts admit that the scary health message may not be getting through to some smokers. He recommends an additional argument, based on simple economics. Think how much a pack of cigarettes costs, he says, and how that money might be better spent on good health.