Smoking down in U.S.; Augusta restrictions on hold

The decline in smoking among American adults has slowed but the rate is still going down, in part due to smoking bans, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Tuesday. But in Augusta, a push by health advocates to toughen the city’s smoking ordinance is on hold, an official said.

The percentage of adults who smoke declined from 20.9 percent in 2005 to 19.3 percent in 2010, according to the CDC’s monthly Vital Signs report. While CDC Director Thomas Frieden called it a “virtual stall in the decline in smoking,” the director of the CDC Office on Smoking and Health, Dr. Tim McAfee, said, “It is slowing down the rate of decline but we are still moving in the right direction.”

Current smokers are also smoking less -- those who consume nine or fewer a day increased from 16.4 percent in 2005 to 21.8 percent in 2010 while those who smoke 30 or more daily declined from 12.7 percent to 8.3 percent, the report noted. But those who are smoking less for some perceived health benefit are still doing themselves a disservice, McAfee said.

“Far and away, the best thing that people can do is to quit, for which they will get very clear -- some of them almost immediate -- benefits,” he said.

There are still great disparities in smoking rates because of income and education, McAfee said. Only 6.3 percent of those with a postgraduate degree smoked compared to 45 percent of those with a General Educational Development diploma, or GED, he said.

While higher tobacco taxes have helped, their impact is likely blunted by nearly $10 billion a year in promotions and advertisement by tobacco companies, about 72 percent of which goes to discounts and coupons for smokers to offset the higher prices, McAfee said. The companies might have also altered their products to make more nicotine available faster, Frieden said.

“It is possible that cigarettes today may be somewhat even more addictive than they were 10 or 20 years ago,” he said.

Societal efforts aimed at curbing smoking have helped, McAfee said.

“We’ve seen a de-normalization of smoking, we’ve seen the increase in clean indoor air laws that have happened so aggressively in the last 10 years,” he said. “It’s a little harder for people to smoke but also people feel like they want to cut down.”

Advocates are pushing to tighten Augusta’s smoking ban, which right now allows exemptions for bars and restaurants that do not allow anyone under age 18. They approached the Augusta Commission about enacting a tougher ordinance but are still waiting for public hearings to be set, said East Central Health District Director Ketty Gonzalez.

With all that the commission is dealing with right now, she said, “this has been put to the side,” Augusta General Counsel Andrew MacKenzie has sent out a draft of the proposed ordinance to various officials, but it is unclear if it is back on any committee agenda, said Harry Revell, attorney for the Richmond County Board of Health.

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