CDC Reports Nearly 38 Million U.S. Adults Still Smoke – Bold Action Needed to Accelerate Progress and Address Smoking Disparities

Statement of Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
January 18, 2018

WASHINGTON, DC – A CDC report issued today shows that while the United States has made great progress in reducing smoking, 37.8 million adults still smoked in 2016 and there are large disparities in who still smokes in the U.S. This report shows why the fight against tobacco – the nation’s No. 1 cause of preventable death – must remain a national priority and why proven strategies to reduce tobacco use must be fully implemented to reach all Americans, particularly vulnerable groups with high smoking rates. 

The CDC report shows that the adult smoking rate fell from 20.9 percent in 2005 to 15.5 percent in 2016, but the survey showed no significant change  since 2015 when the rate was 15.1 (preliminary data for the first six months of 2017 shows a decline in the adult smoking rate to 14.4 percent).

The report also shows once again that there are large disparities in who still smokes. Smoking rates are highest among people who live below the poverty level; those with less education; American Indians/Alaska Natives; residents of the South and Midwest; lesbian/gay/bisexuals; and adults with serious psychological distress. Adults who are uninsured or on Medicaid smoke at more than double the rates of those with private health insurance or Medicare.

These findings are a reminder that tobacco use is a major contributor to health disparities in our country. It is unacceptable that we have become a nation of haves and have-nots in combating tobacco use, with some states, communities and populations left behind and suffering higher burdens of tobacco-related diseases such as cancer and heart disease.

Proven solutions must be fully implemented across the nation, including significant tobacco tax increases, comprehensive smoke-free laws, well-funded tobacco prevention and cessation programs that include mass media campaigns, laws raising the tobacco sale age to 21, and comprehensive, barrier-free health insurance coverage for smoking cessation treatments. As 25.3 percent of Medicaid recipients smoke, states should expand Medicaid coverage for cessation treatments.

The CDC, the FDA and Truth Initiative should also continue the unprecedented mass media campaigns they have launched in recent years. Congress must reject a proposal in a House appropriations bill that would cut funding for the CDC’s tobacco prevention and cessation programs by nearly 25 percent, which would threaten the CDC’s successful and cost-effective Tips from Former Smokers media campaign.

The FDA should also take several critical steps to accelerate progress in reducing smoking: implement its plan to limit nicotine in cigarettes to minimally addictive or non-addictive levels, and apply this limit to other combustible tobacco products; require graphic health warnings covering at least half of cigarette packs, as a 2009 law mandated; and prohibit the use of menthol in cigarettes and flavors in other tobacco products.

Despite our progress, tobacco still kills more than 480,000 Americans and costs $170 billion in health care expenses each year.  It is within our reach to win this fight, but only if policy makers at all levels fully implement proven solutions.

Today’s report was published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.