National experts are crediting smoking bans, the increasing price of cigarettes, and educating people about the tobacco industry’s marketing campaigns for the national drop in smoking rates in 2012.

More from the 2012 report

The percentage of current adult smokers was higher for men (20.4 percent) than for women (15.8 percent).

For both genders combined, the percentage of adults who were current smokers was lower among adults age 65 and older (8.9 percent) that among those age 18-44 (20.3 percent) and 45-64 (19.5 percent).

Among the races, the prevalence of current smoking was 11.9 percent for Hispanic adults, 17.9 percent for non-Hispanic black adults and 20.5 percent for non-Hispanic white adults.

Source: Center on Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics

According to a report released in late June by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, 18 percent of American adults were cigarette smokers in 2012. That’s down from 18.9 percent in 2011 and from 20.6 percent in 2009.

The statistic marks a new low in the national smoking rate and strong evidence that a multi-pronged approach to curbing an unhealthy habit, which plays major roles in cancer and heart disease, is working.

The drop also continues the most statistically significant change since the period between 1997 and 2005, when the rate dropped from 24.7 percent to 20.9 percent.

Bans work

“The fact that we’re below this theoretical sound barrier of 20 percent is important,” says Stanton Glantz, the director of the University of California at San Francisco’s Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, in an interview with The New York Times.

Glantz says researchers have strong evidence on what works, such as smoking bans, and what doesn’t, such as school education programs.

States that have exercised more control of cigarettes via taxes and bans, Glantz adds, are seeing more dramatic drops. The prevalence of smoking in California and New York is down to 12 and 14 percent, respectively.

“When you create smoke-free workplaces, bars, casinos and restaurants, it sends a strong message that smoking is out,” says Glantz. “It also creates environments that make it easier for people to quit smoking.”

The recent report did not give state-by-state statistics, yet the Southeast and South Carolina still lag behind the nation. The 2011 report stated the Palmetto State’s adult smoking rate was 23.1 percent.

Archive cigarettes

Michael Cummings, the co-lead of tobacco research at the Medical University of South Carolina, says the declining rates of smoking are encouraging but that the overall trends hide some important differences.

“The rate of decline in smoking is slower in the South compared to other regions of the United States where more (state and local) governments have hiked taxes, banned indoor smoking and offered more help to smokers to quit,” says Cummings, who has served as a nicotine expert in tobacco lawsuits since the landmark Brown & Williamson case in the mid-1990s.

Cummings adds that there are more important differences in study groups, or “cohorts,” based on age.

“Teens who grew up with Joe Camel in late 1980s and early 1990s have high rates of smoking and are not at an age where quitting becomes serious due to illness. As a result, those age 25-34 years continue to smoke at high rates and quit with lower rates of success,” says Cummings.

Cummings says birth cohorts now in their teens and young adult years have rejected cigarettes in large numbers and represent the tobacco industry’s “failure to create a new generation of replacement smokers.”

He adds that bodes well for continued declines in smoking rates over the next decade and spells trouble for cigarette makers.

Solutions for S.C.

“To compensate for the loss of sales, cigarette makers continue to raise prices to maintain profits for shareholders. That short-term strategy has worked but is also helping to keep young people from taking up smoking,” says Cummings.

The time has come, Cummings says, for the cigarette to be retired to the museum, especially when viable alternatives to cigarettes exist, from nicotine gums to nebulizers, aka “e-cigs,” the latter of which some stock analyzers say will overtake cigarettes in 2020.

Cummings says South Carolina could and should push the trend of more expensive cigarettes and fewer smokers faster by “taxing cigarettes at a price that reimburses the taxes the public shells out each year to cover health costs.”

“Right now, we’re not even close,” says Cummings, adding that the revenue should be earmarked for cancer research, cancer care and early lung-cancer screenings.

“The epidemic of disease from smoking will remain for decades even if everyone quit tomorrow. Half of all smoking-caused lung cancers occur in former smokers today. Early detection is an option that really needs to be pushed if we want to reduce lung cancer in South Carolina.

He heralds the city of Charleston’s comprehensive clean indoor law being a template for the entire state and that economic incentives should favor safer nicotine alternatives to cigarettes.

“It has been 50 years since the original Surgeon General’s report on smoking and health. Twenty million smoking-caused deaths later should be enough time for everyone to say enough is enough.”

Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or dquick@postand