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U.S. smoking hits new low, but tobacco's still the leading cause of preventable disease and deaths

The smoking rate in the United States has fallen to an all-time low, according to a report released late last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

About 21 percent of American adults — or 45 million people — smoked cigarettes in 2005. Ten years later, in 2015, only 15 percent — or 37 million people  — smoked, the report says. The smoking rate dropped a remarkable 1.7 percentage points between 2014 and 2015 alone.

Unfortunately, however, tobacco use — particularly cigarette smoking — remains the leading cause of preventable disease and death in the U.S.

Indeed, at least 40 percent of all cancers diagnosed in the U.S. — and 30 percent of all cancer deaths — are linked to tobacco use, according to a second CDC report, which was also published last week.

“There are more than 36 million smokers in the U.S.,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, the CDC’s director, in a released statement. “Sadly, nearly half could die prematurely from tobacco-related illnesses, including 6 million from cancer, unless we implement the programs that will help smokers quit.”

Some progress has already been made. The CDC’s statisticians estimate that the drop in the smoking rate has saved 1.3 million cancer deaths since 1990.

Inequities persist

Comprehensive cancer control programs are in place in all states, but, as the CDC points out, “not all states or all people have experienced the benefits of these efforts.” Tobacco-related cancer-rate inequities are particularly pronounced among these three demographic groups:

African-Americans. Their rates of developing and dying from tobacco-related cancers are higher than those of people of other races or ethnicities and of people who live in counties with either a low proportion of college graduates or high poverty levels.

Men. The incidence rate for tobacco-related cancers is 40 percent higher among men than among women.

People living in northeastern states.  The incidence rates of tobacco-related cancers are highest in the Northeast (201.5 per 100,000 persons) and lowest in the West (170.3 per 100,000 persons). The rate for the Midwest is just below that of the Northeast (200.8 per 100,000 persons).

Minnesota stands out from the other states in the Midwest, however. According to the CDC report, it has one the lowest tobacco-related cancer rates in the country — although it’s also one of the states with the lowest annual drop in its rate between 2009 and 2013 (under 1 percent).  

The benefits of quitting

More than 70 cancer-causing chemicals have been identified in tobacco smoke and 28 in smokeless tobacco products.

Tobacco has been linked to cancers throughout the body, including those in the lung, mouth, throat, voice box, stomach, esophagus, liver, pancreas, cervix, bladder, rectum and colon. One form of blood cancer — acute myeloid leukemia — is also associated with tobacco use.

No matter what your age, quitting smoking or other tobacco products offers health benefits — including reducing your risk of developing cancer. For example:

  • 1 to 9 months after quitting: Coughing and shortness of breath decrease. Tiny hair-like structures that move mucus out of the lungs (called cilia) start to regain normal function in your lungs, increasing their ability to handle mucus, clean the lungs, and reduce the risk of infection.
  • 1 year after quitting: The excess risk of coronary heart disease is half that of someone who still smokes. Your heart attack risk drops dramatically.
  • 5 years after quitting: Your risk of cancers of the mouth, throat, esophagus, and bladder is cut in half. Cervical cancer risk falls to that of a non-smoker. Your stroke risk can fall to that of a non-smoker after 2 to 5 years.

Future support for federal efforts unclear

As the CDC points out, right now — through the Affordable Care Act — the federal government requires most insurance plans to cover recommended cancer screenings and to provide counseling and medications to help people quit tobacco use at no cost to the patient.

The government also funds state tobacco and cancer prevention and control programs, which have played a significant role in helping to reduce the number of people who get cancer caused by smoking or other tobacco use.

In addition, the federal government encourages smoke-free sites that protect nonsmokers from the health dangers of secondhand smoke, and it also regulates the manufacturing marketing and distribution of tobacco products.

It’s not clear if or how these efforts will continue under a Trump administration.

FMI: Both CDC reports can be read in full in the Nov. 11 edition of the agency’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR).

If you smoke or use other tobacco products, you can get free help with quitting today by calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW or by going to www.smokefree.gov. Encourage family members or friends who smoke to try those resources as well.  This week offers a particularly great opportunity to quit smoking: The American Cancer Society’s annual Great American Smokeout, an event that encourages smokers to make a plan to quit — or to quit on that day — will be held Thursday (Nov. 17).

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