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Why US smoking rates are dropping faster than they have in decades

A new CDC study finds smoking rates are dropping faster than they have in decades. 

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    A man flicks ashes from his cigarette over a dustbin in Shanghai.
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Cigarette habits seem to be going up in smoke across the United States. 

The smoking rate dropped faster last year than it has in more than two decades, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Tuesday.

Of adults surveyed, just 15 percent said they had recently smoked last year. That smoking rate is down from 17 percent in 2014. 

In recent years, the smoking rate in the US declines by 1 percentage point or less annually. The last big drop was 1.5 percentage points from 1992 to 1993, the CDC's Brian King told the Associated Press.

It's been more than half a century since the surgeon general released the first report that declared smoking to be harmful. Then, about 42 percent of American adults smoked. 

Following that first surgeon general's report on smoking and health, there have been mandatory warning labels on cigarette packs, anti-smoking campaigns across many platforms, additional taxes, and other programs instituted to reduce smoking. 

Many states have banned smoking in workplaces, bars, and restaurants. And some cities, like New York City and Boston, have even banned smoking in public parks. 

A 2014 study found that those efforts collectively saved 8 million lives and a total of 157 million years of life. That means 20 more years of life for each person who quit or never smoked because of these programs. 

Although smoking habits are being stamped out across the US, the problem is still smoldering.

Smoking is still the leading cause of preventable illness in the nation, public health experts say. Smoking is a cause of cancer, heart disease and other serious health problems. The CDC estimates that more than 480,000 people die each year from smoking-related causes. 

And even as the fight against smoking rages on, a new factor has joined the scene.

Electronic cigarettes are largely being advertised as a tool for smokers to wean themselves off nicotine, but they might be attracting new smokers to nicotine use as well.

These battery-powered devices, called e-cigarettes or e-cigs, turn liquid nicotine into a vapor so that smokers can receive the chemical they may crave without the byproducts of burning tobacco. 

But this seemingly safer option still contains the addictive nicotine. And a CDC study published in April suggests that teens who wouldn't otherwise be smokers are reaching for e-cigarettes.

"E-cigarette ads use many of the same themes used to sell cigarettes and other conventional tobacco products, such as independence, rebellion and sex," lead author Tushar Singh of the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health in Atlanta told Reuters at the time. 

That, combined with the ease of access via online vendors, makes it easy for teenagers to get their hands on e-cigarettes. 

E-cigarettes may not be as harmful as traditional tobacco cigarettes, but previous research has suggested that adolescents who try e-cigarettes are more than twice as likely to try the combustible version.

Jonathan Whiteson, a smoking cessation specialist at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York, told the Associated Press that as regulators increasingly focus on e-cigarettes, this problem could be headed off. For example, the Food and Drug Administration extended its regulations on traditional cigarettes to apply also to e-cigarettes, hookah tobacco, pipe tobacco, and nicotine gels. This includes age minimums for use.

"We'd expect continued declines in smoking, as we've seen in the past 50 years. But it's hard to say what future holds," the CDC's Dr. King said.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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