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Cigarette Smoking Rates in US Reach Historic Lows

John Cormier smokes a cigarette on Main Street in Westminster, Mass., Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014.

The American Lung Association says fewer Americans smoke cigarettes now than before tobacco control policies were put in place.

In its annual report, the ALA says smoking rates among adults and teens are at historic lows. On average, just over 15.5 percent of American adults and eight percent of high school students smoke cigarettes.

The association gets its data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which show the smoking rate declined from 20.9 percent in 2005 to 15.5 percent in 2016. Still, CDC data shows that nearly 38 million American adults continue to smoke.

"The good news is that these data are consistent with the declines in adult cigarette smoking that we’ve seen for several decades. These findings also show that more people are quitting, and those who continue to smoke are smoking less," according to Corinne Graffunder, director of the CDC’s Office on Smoking and Health quoted in a news release from the CDC.

Yet, the American Lung Association finds that certain groups and regions in the United States are disproportionately impacted by tobacco use and exposure to second-hand smoke. Thomas Carr, the ALA's Director of National Policy who wrote the 2018 report "The State of Tobacco Control," said poorer Americans, those who are less educated, Native Americans and some ethnic groups have smoking rates that are close to 30 percent or higher.

"The tobacco industry advertises more to some of these groups and more heavily than others, and you will find in low-income areas, there are sometimes a bigger concentration of tobacco stores and that kind of thing."

Cigarettes are displayed on a shelf in New York, Aug. 28, 2017.
Cigarettes are displayed on a shelf in New York, Aug. 28, 2017.

There's also peer pressure, and when friends or parents smoke, teens tend to take up the habit. Studies show that most people who smoke start before they are 18. Some start as young as age 11 according to The Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Carr calls it a pediatric disease. "It starts in your teens and then once you’re hooked, you can’t get off of it."

The lung association is pushing states to raise the age where young people can legally purchase cigarettes to 21, the minimum age in the United States for purchasing alcohol. The thought is that if middle and high school students can't get cigarettes, they are less likely to start smoking. "It cuts off access to people 15 to 17 years old. A lot of times they’ll go to their friends who are 18 (and still) in high school, but they’re not as likely to hang around with people who are 19 or 20 or 21." So far five states -- California, Oregon, Maine, Hawaii and New Jersey have raised the age to 21.

The lung association issues an annual report to help promote state and federal regulations to make it easier for people who smoke to quit and to help those who don't smoke not to start.