The number of adult Americans who smoke is declining, hitting a historic low of 15.2 percent during the first quarter, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week.
That still means 37.3 million adults regularly smoke traditional cigarettes, according to the CDC’s National Health Interview study.
But that’s down from 17.8 percent in 2013, 20.9 percent in 2005 and 24.7 percent in 1997.
“It represents the largest single-year decline in the last 18 years,” said Brad Rodu, a professor of medicine at the University of Louisville and a smokeless tobacco advocate.
Explanations for the declining smoking rate vary, depending mostly on the commentator’s position on smokeless tobacco. Anti-tobacco advocates tout several reasons, such as higher excise taxes, anti-smoking campaigns, higher retail prices, fewer places to legally smoke indoors and socioeconomic shifts.
Meanwhile, pro-smokeless tobacco advocates point to the increasing popularity of electronic cigarettes and vaporizers that some analysts believe will outsell traditional cigarettes in the next 5-10 years.
The typical e-cig is a battery-powered device that heats a liquid nicotine solution in a disposable cartridge and creates a vapor that is inhaled. A vaporizer can be supplied and reused through the insertion of a liquid capsule.
The industry, elected officials and advocates have waited for more than two years on the next round of potential regulations from the Food and Drug Administration. Those regulations are likely to include restrictions on e-cigs and vaporizers.
“So what are we to make of these data?” asked Dr. Gilbert Ross, medical and executive director of the pro-business American Council on Science and Health.
“Was there some amazingly effective FDA mandate or tobacco industry intervention that made the smoking rate decline so impressively over the past two years among adults and over the past four years among teens? Some new cessation drug, patch, that made a difference? Better QuitLines? Graphic warnings on cigarette packs?
“The only remarkable change over the past few years has been the astounding growth of the reduced-harm product marketplace: e-cigarettes and e-vapor products,” Ross said.
Rodu said the CDC began collecting information last year on adult e-cig use, which he expects will demonstrate that “rather than impeding progress, e-cigarettes may be accelerating a smoke-free revolution.”
Gregory Conley, president of the American Vaping Association, said if the current decline in smoking continues, “we stand a chance of actually attaining a 12 percent smoking rate by 2020.” That is the goal set in the CDC’s Healthy People 2020 initiative.
“It is undeniable that vaping has played a significant role in promoting cessation among adult smokers,” Conley said. “It is time for activists to stop making nonsense claims that vaping is somehow leading to more smoking by adults or teens.”
Scott Ballin, past chairman of the Coalition on Smoking or Health, said there is no hard data or a direct study to correlate the drop in cigarette consumption with the rise of the use of e-cigs or the awareness of lower risk products.
“However, many smokers are changing their smoking behaviors,” Ballin said.
“Such changes in behaviors aren’t isolated to tobacco. Build a better mouse trap and they will come.”