By Steven Reinberg
THURSDAY, Nov. 12 (HealthDay News) -- After decades of progress, the number of Americans who smoke hasn't budged over the last five years and actually rose slightly from 2007 to 2008, according to a new report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Over the longer term, smoking rates have declined. From 1998 to 2008, the percentage of smokers in the United States dropped from 24.1 to 20.6 percent.
However, the report notes that "during the past five years, rates have shown virtually no change," and in fact the percentage of Americans who smoke has begun to creep up again, rising from 19.8 percent in 2007 to 20.6 percent in 2008.
Many experts blame the turnaround on recent cutbacks in funding for state tobacco-control programs, which had proven successful.
"Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., and we know what to do," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, the CDC director. "We want to provide support to states and localities to implement proven programs, and if we do that, we can save literally millions of lives in the decades to come."
The report is published in the Nov. 13 edition of the CDC's Morbidity and Morality Weekly Report, and arrives just before the American Cancer Society's annual quit-smoking day, the Great American Smokeout, set for Nov. 19.
According to the report, from 2007 to 2008 the number of Americans who smoked remained constant, at about 46 million. Smokers were more likely to be male (23.1 percent) than female (18.3 percent).
The majority of smokers are people who did not graduate from high school, and the lowest rates are among those with a college graduate degree, the report found.
Asian Americans had the lowest smoking rates (9.9 percent), and American Indians and Alaskan Natives had the highest (32.4 percent), the researchers found.
The CDC investigators place much of the blame for the stagnation in smoking rates on states' underfunding of their tobacco-control programs. They point out that from 2000 to 2009, states have received $203.5 billion in tobacco-related revenue. However, less than 3 percent of the funds have been earmarked for tobacco-prevention and smoking-cessation programs in the states, according to the report.
The researchers added that if states were to use just 15 percent of the money they receive from tobacco, they could adequately finance tobacco-control measures at CDC-recommended levels. However, in 2009, no state funds its program to that level, according to the agency.
Frieden noted that in states where tobacco-control programs are supported, "we continue to see a substantial decline" in smoking rates.
"In contrast, too few states are making that kind of progress," he said. "And we are seeing reductions on the spending on tobacco control, despite the fact that we take in, as a country, $25 billion from the Master Settlement Agreement and tobacco taxes. We spend only about 3 percent of that on tobacco control."
Another report in the same issue of the CDC's weekly report examined people's exposure to secondhand smoke, looking at data from 11 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Exposure to secondhand smoke in homes ranged from 3.2 percent in Arizona to 10.6 percent in West Virginia, researchers found. At work, exposure ranged from 6 percent in Tennessee to 17.3 percent in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
In West Virginia, 68.8 percent of the people said they do not allow smoking in their home, as did 85.7 percent of those living in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
"Still, half the people in this country are not protected by comprehensive smoke-free laws," Frieden noted.
The CDC maintains that passing more smoke-free laws and encouraging people not to smoke at home could go a long way toward reducing the danger to nonsmokers from secondhand smoke.
On the plus side, Frieden noted that in 2009, the federal tobacco tax was raised and some states are also raising their tobacco tax. "We know that those increases make a big difference," he said.
In addition, more places are becoming smoke-free, he said. "Going smoke-free not only protects the health of nonsmokers but also encourages smokers to quit," Freiden said.