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Number of smokers staying mostly flat, frustrating health officials

ATLANTA (AP) _ The number of American adults who smoke has hardly budged over the past several years, holding steady at roughly one in four.

The figures are frustrating to health officials, who want to see the smoking level much lower by the end of the decade.

A 1999 study released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 23.5 percent of adults _ about 46 million people _ are regular smokers. That is a modest decline from 24 percent in 1998 and 25 percent in 1993.

The government set a goal of 12 percent by 2010.

``We're happy that we're back on a downward trend, but those feelings are tempered with our recognition that we will not reach the objective without a more dramatic decline,'' said Dr. Terry Pechacek, associate director of CDC's Office on Smoking and Health.

Smoking dropped steadily during the 1980s. But it flattened out in the 1990s, even amid heavy anti-tobacco advertising, higher cigarette prices and a crackdown on smoking in public places.

The CDC wants more states to imitate Arizona, which saw a big drop in smoking after voters approved a steep hike in the cigarette tax and the state launched a creative anti-smoking campaign. The popular ads blasted cigarettes as a ``smelly, puking habit,'' and smoking dropped from 23 percent to 18 percent in just three years.

The national figures released Thursday also show big gaps along financial and educational lines.

About 33 percent of people below the poverty line smoke, compared with just 23 percent of those at or above the poverty line. And just 13 percent of people with an undergraduate degree smoke cigarettes, compared with nearly 40 percent of those went only through early high school.

Whites and blacks were equal at 24.3 percent.
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