NYC smoking rate goes back down after startling rise

Thursday, September 17, 2015
Cigarette butt in grass

NEW YORK -- The ranks of smokers are dwindling after a surprising uptick in a city known for tough steps to discourage tobacco use, city health officials said Wednesday.

A 2014 Health Department survey showed fewer than 900,000 adults smoked, down from more than 1 million the year before. The 13.9 percent smoking rate last year roughly equals an all-time low in 2010.

"We have made strides in reducing the number of smokers in New York City" but have more work to do, Health Commissioner Dr. Mary Bassett said in a statement.

Still, the drop is a relief to officials and public health advocates following the startling news that the rate had hit 16 percent in 2013. The city has since run somber new anti-smoking ads, and health officials say they believe the city's efforts generally have been working despite the 2013 upturn.

Cigarette giant Altria Group Inc., which produces the top-selling Marlboro brand, declined to comment on the new smoking-rate statistics. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., maker of brands including Camel, and cigarette retailers' group the National Association of Tobacco Outlets didn't immediately respond to requests for comment Wednesday evening.

The national smoking rate also has been declining, hitting 17 percent of adults last year. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in June that the state adult smoking rate had hit a low of 14.5 percent.

The city's rate was 22 percent in 2002 , when then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg began leading a charge to stub out smoking. During his 12 years in office, the city imposed the nation's highest cigarette taxes; banned smoking in bars, parks and even beaches; and voted to raise the minimum tobacco-buying age to 21. It also produced graphic anti-smoking ads featuring pictures of smoke-damaged internal organs, amputated limbs and other smoking-related health complications.

After the smoking rates went up in 2013, Bassett - appointed by current Mayor Bill de Blasio - said last year she believed budget cutbacks following the 2008 financial crisis had hampered the city's effectiveness in fighting tobacco use. The city had reined in television advertising and some other efforts to help people quit.

The city last fall launched a somber $830,000 ad campaign that highlighted the risk of smoking-related emphysema, asking viewers to imagine constant coughing and shortness of breath.

Smoking is the nation's leading cause of preventable illness.