WASHINGTON - Americans are rejecting the smoking habit at a surprisingly rapid rate, a trend that is going global.
But there are signs of increased smoking in poor countries and among teen-agers and young women in several countries, and deaths blamed on smoking still are rising worldwide.
U.S. cigarette exports are down 25 percent, with 50 billion fewer cigarettes sent abroad in just one year. That is 2.5 billion fewer packs of cigarettes exported each year.
The number of cigarettes sold per person in the United States fell a record 8 percent last year, according to government data and to a Worldwatch analysis that also cites per-capita declines in some of the heaviest smoking countries: France, Japan and, markedly, China, whose 1.25 billion people now smoke one-third of the world's cigarettes.
The anti-smoking campaign credits smoking bans and increased public awareness of smoking's dangers for the decline. The Agriculture Department cites higher taxes, price increases to offset a $246 billion tobacco settlement with several states, and the cumulative impact of 35 years of warnings from the surgeon general's office.
The industry says the decline is directly related to the rising price of cigarettes - up 80 percent from two years ago.
Smoking has been linked in medical studies to more than 25 diseases, including heart disease, strokes, respiratory illness and several forms of cancer.
The World Health Organization plans to seek a treaty to further clear the global air of tobacco smoke and is promoting World No Tobacco Day on May 31. WHO predicts smoking-related diseases will kill 10 million people annually by the 2020s - two and a half times the current toll.
But that projection now is challenged by declines in cigarette production, sales and consumption in the United States and scattered parts of the world.
Smoking in the United States dropped from 2,810 cigarettes per person annually two decades ago to 1,633 last year, a 42 percent drop, according to calculations by Worldwatch, an environmental research group. Globally, the decline was 11 percent.
Exports for unmanufactured tobacco were down 10.6 percent by weight last year and U.S. cigarette exports dropped from 201.3 billion in 1998 to 151.4 billion, according to the Agriculture Department and the Census Bureau.
Some of the decline is due to production shifts by U.S. companies to other countries; global production is believed to be up about 1 percent. With population increases, per capita smoking still fell slightly worldwide, from 929 cigarettes in 1998 to 915 last year.
Lester R. Brown, chairman of Worldwatch, noted the success of advertising in California aimed at demonstrating loss of sexual potency among smokers and the spread of smoking bans and higher taxes.
"The land that gave the world tobacco is now leading it away from tobacco," Brown said.
But not every believes the world is giving up the weed.
"That's a bit of an exaggeration," said Heather Selin, tobacco adviser for the Pan American Health Organization. She said data is incomplete and the smoking cloud still wafts across the Third World.
Pete Burr, tobacco analyst for the government's Foreign Agricultural Service, said drops in exports are occurring mostly to Europe, possibly because U.S. companies are opening plants in Eastern Europe.
Most export markets, particularly Japan, remain strong, Burr said.
WHO describes a "smoking epidemic" among younger women in Asia, In Spain and Sweden, surveys show more 15-year-old girls smoke than boys.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says smoking among young adults, age 18 to 24, has been rising, for the first time, to the level of those age 25 to 44. High school smoking rates are even higher.
Samira Asma, an international analyst at the centers, said smokers are dying younger and women now tend to take up smoking more than men both in developed and developing countries.
Tobacco companies say price increases are almost exclusively responsible for the declines.
"There may be other factors, but I don't know what they would be," said John Singleton, spokesman for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, No. 2 in sales. He said RJR is responding to the drop by pursuing the 75 percent of the market it doesn't have.
John Banzhaf, head of Action on Smoking, says smoking restrictions are the major reason for the U.S. decline.
"Banning smoking in the workplace is a very powerful incentive for people to quit smoking," Banzhaf said.
On the Net:
Agriculture Department Foreign Agricultural Service: http:www.fas.usda.gov/cots/tobacco.html
World Health Organization's tobacco-free initiative: http://www.who.int/toh/
Worldwatch issue brief on tobacco: http://www.worldwatch.org/chairman/issue/000509.html