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Published: Friday, 3/17/2006

Tobacco turning point?

ANY doubt about the effectiveness of smoking bans, or anti-tobacco campaigns, or restrictions on cigarette advertising, has been removed by a new report on the nation's dramatically declining smoking rate.

The country's per capita consumption of tobacco has fallen to levels not seen since the early 1930s. Last year it declined by 4.2 percent alone, according to the Association of State Attorneys General, who found Americans smoked fewer cigarettes in 2005 than at any time since 1951.

After tobacco companies reached a national settlement with states in 1998, data also shows overall tobacco use dropped more than 20 percent. The news is heartening to those who have championed anti-smoking initiatives funded in part by the $246 billion settlement.

It is also proof, say association leaders and other tobacco control advocates, that a combination of increased public awareness of the dangers of smoking, along with rising cigarette costs and restrictions on cigarette advertising, is working.

"I think we're reaching a tipping point, where the image of tobacco is that it's unhealthy and dangerous," said Tom Miller, Iowa attorney general and co-chair of the Tobacco Committee of the National Association of Attorneys General.

The decline is worth celebrating, but, as tobacco control proponents note, we still have too many smokers: Roughly 21 percent of high school students still smoke, as do a similar percentage of adults.

Yet anti-smoking crusaders believe national health goals to reduce smoking rates even more by 2010 are within reach. "We're on target to exceed the national goal" of having only 15 percent of youths and 12 percent of adults smoking, said Cheryl Healton, president of the American Legacy Foundation, a tobacco control group.

Winning this battle will require persistence but it is achievable and the public health payoffs are undisputed.

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