By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 9, 2006; A01
Americans smoked fewer cigarettes last year than at
any time since 1951, and the nation's per capita
consumption of tobacco fell to levels not seen since the
early 1930s, the association of state attorneys general
Using data the federal government gathers when it
collects taxes on cigarette sales, the group found a 4.2
percent decline in 2005 alone and an overall drop of
more than 20 percent since tobacco companies reached a
legal settlement with the states in 1998.
Association leaders and other tobacco-control
advocates hailed the decline as a sign that
sometimes-controversial developments triggered by the
$246 billion settlement have been effective. The drop
was a result, they said, of factors that include the
sharply higher cost of cigarettes, restrictions on
cigarette advertising and a shift in public perceptions
as the dangers of smoking are more aggressively and
"I think we're reaching a tipping point, where the
image of tobacco is that it's unhealthy and dangerous,
and not glamorous like years ago or neutral like the
cigarette companies say now," said Tom Miller, Iowa's
attorney general and co-chairman of the National
Association of Attorneys General's tobacco committee.
"We've seen a big drop in cigarette smoking, but I
think we can still cut the smoking rate substantially
more," he said.
Cheryl Healton, president of the American Legacy
Foundation, a tobacco-control group initially funded by
the legal settlement, said the continuing decline
suggests that the national health goal of reducing
smoking rates even further by 2010 is within reach.
"We're on target to exceed the national goal" of
having no more than 15 percent of youths and 12 percent
of adults smoking, Healton said. Few of the other
national health goals adopted in 2000 appear to be
achievable, she said, "but this is one battle we're
Federal studies show that about 21.7 percent of high
school students still smoke, as do 20.9 percent of
adults -- about 45 million Americans 18 and older.
Tobacco use remains the leading preventable cause of
death, causing more than 400,000 deaths a year.
The decline in smoking began more than 20 years ago
but accelerated after the settlement. Healton said the
drop is a result of fewer people starting the habit,
more people quitting and many cutting back on the number
of cigarettes they smoke.
Some of those trends were unrelated to the
settlement, such as the decisions by 12 states, the
District, Puerto Rico, and hundreds of cities and
counties to ban smoking in public buildings, including
restaurants and bars. "With all the restrictions in
place now on smoking in public areas, it's just
difficult to smoke as much as before," Healton said.
She said the sharp increase in the price of
cigarettes since the settlement -- from an average of
$1.74 a pack in 1997 to $3.16 in 2004 -- has been
especially important in reducing the number of young
people who start smoking.
Michael Neese, spokesman for Philip Morris USA, said
the company has always expected that the settlement
would bring about "meaningful change." A call to R.J.
Reynolds Tobacco Co. was not returned.
The association's study found that about 378 billion
cigarettes were sold in the United States last year --
the lowest number since 1951, when the population was
half of what it is today. Although the official 2005
total did not take into account growing but untraceable
Internet sales and other black-market supplies,
officials said those sources remain minuscule compared
with legal purchases.
The heart of the agreement reached between the states
and the tobacco industry in 1998 is the $246 billion
being paid to settle lawsuits over cigarette-related
health costs. Tobacco companies generally passed their
costs along in the form of higher prices, which in turn
reduced cigarette sales.
But Miller and other tobacco-control advocates said
yesterday that the agreement has also helped change the
public's view of smoking. With the banning of ads such
as those featuring the character "Joe Camel" and the
expansion of aggressive anti-smoking ad campaigns, they
said, the message that many young people are getting is
dramatically different from the one of 10 years ago,
when teenage smoking was on the rise.
"The long-term trend is perfectly clear and
consistent," said Mark Greenwald, director of the
Tobacco Project for the association of state attorneys
general. "What we have is an enormous social change in
terms of what is considered acceptable behavior."
Although the steep decline in cigarette sales has
been a public health boon, it has become something of a
financial problem for some states. Because industry
payments to states are based to some extent on the
number of cigarettes sold, the settlement revenue has
The 46 states that signed the settlement initially
expected about $6.5 billion this spring, for instance,
but the tobacco companies have said that they may be
entitled to cut the payments by as much as $1.2 billion
this year. Some of that decline would be the result of
dropping sales, and some could come from other
adjustments allowed under the settlement.
In particular, the major tobacco companies have said,
the agreement allows them to reduce payments if their
collective market share falls below a certain threshold
-- something they say occurred in 2003 after a
substantial number of Americans switched to low-cost
generic cigarettes. The states disputed that
interpretation, and the issue is in arbitration.
But Iowa's Miller said states are ready for
reductions in tobacco payments that are based on
declining sales, and even welcome them.
"We knew from the beginning that if we succeeded in
changing the cigarette culture, that sales would drop
and so would our payments," he said. "But states deal
with rising and declining revenues all the time, and
this is one decline we're quite happy to see."