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CDC Report Reveals Decline In American Smokers


Smoking has been on the decline for decades, and today we learn that it hit an all-time low last year. Just 15 percent of adults smoked cigarettes in 2015, according to a new survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That's down almost 10 percent since 1997. Dr. Tom Frieden is the director of the CDC. Welcome to the program.

TOM FRIEDEN: Great to be here.

CORNISH: So just how big a deal is this? And how do you explain the decline?

FRIEDEN: There's still far too many adults and kids using tobacco, but this is real progress. So one thing that's happening is a whole generation of kids smoked a lot less, and they're aging in and replacing the young adults who smoked at a very high rate 10 years ago. So that's one positive harvest, really, of more than a decade of good tobacco control efforts. We're also seeing most people who've ever smoked have already quit, and most people who still smoke want to quit.

CORNISH: Along the lines of quitting, how do e-cigarettes factor into this? And does the survey count e-cigarettes as tobacco use?

FRIEDEN: The 15 percent does not include e-cigarettes. This is about current cigarette smokers. We're releasing a few different trends with e-cigarettes. There are some adults for whom it appears to help them quit smoking for good. That's a good thing. Unfortunately, most adults who use e-cigarettes continue to smoke regular cigarettes. And far too many kids are using e-cigarettes, and that is risking the progress for the future.

CORNISH: Can we talk a little bit more about the causes of the decline? Is this just about a cultural shift? Is this about the expense of cigarettes? What's going on?

FRIEDEN: The biggest differences are increasing the price through tobacco taxes that save lives and generate money for very important social programs - smoke-free places, which protect non-smokers but also help smokers quit, and hard-hitting media campaigns. These make a big impact, and there's an interplay between those kind of specific programs and the general attitude towards smoking, which is changing in much, but not in all, of our society.

CORNISH: Now, is this decrease in smokers being reflected in healthcare costs? I mean, is there any way to understand what's going on there?

FRIEDEN: Someone who quits smoking costs about $1,000 less to care for per year than someone who continues smoking. Once you quit smoking, very quickly your risk for a heart attack goes down. Your risk of having worse lung disease goes down more gradually, and cancer goes down more gradually still.

CORNISH: Have we reached a point, though, where we don't need to consider this a problem in the same way that we used to culturally?

FRIEDEN: It may be incredible to some people who don't see people smoke around them, but tobacco remains the leading preventable cause of death in this country. It continues to kill nearly half a million people per year. And we have much further to go to help smokers quit and to reduce the number of kids who get addicted every day.

CORNISH: You were saying I may not see people smoking around, but are you saying that - is that regional? I mean, is there something about the demographics there?

FRIEDEN: In some of the southern and mid-Atlantic states, we see very high rates of smoking. In some demographic groups such as lower-income white Americans, we see higher smoking rates. Men have higher rates than women. There's a very tight correlation with educational levels, so much lower rates the more formal education people have.

CORNISH: Tom Frieden is the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He spoke to us about the U.S. smoking rate, which has hit an all-time low of 15 percent. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

FRIEDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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