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Experts increasingly contemplate end of smoking in United States

ATLANTA--U.S. health officials have begun to predict the end of cigarette smoking in America.

They have long wished for a cigarette-free America, but shied away from calling for smoking rates to fall to zero or near zero by any particular year. The power of tobacco companies and popularity of their products made such a goal seem like a pipe dream.

But a confluence of changes has recently prompted public health leaders to start throwing around phrases like “endgame” and “tobacco-free generation.” Now, they talk about the slowly declining adult smoking rate dropping to 10 percent in the next decade and to 5 percent or lower by 2050.

Acting U.S. Surgeon General Boris Lushniak last month released a 980-page report on smoking that pushed for stepped-up tobacco-control measures. His news conference was an unusually animated showing of anti-smoking bravado, with Lushniak nearly yelling, repeatedly, “Enough is enough!”

“I can't accept that we're just allowing these numbers to trickle down,” he said, in a recent interview with the AP. “We believe we have the public health tools to get us to the zero level.”

This is not the first time a U.S. health official has spoken so boldly. In 1984, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop called for a “smoke-free society” by the year 2000. However, Koop — a bold talker on many issues — didn't offer specifics on how to achieve such a goal.

“What's different today is that we have policies and programs that have been proven to drive down tobacco use,” said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. “We couldn't say that in 1984.”

Among the things that have changed:

— Cigarette taxes have increased, making smokes more expensive. Though prices vary from state to state, on average a pack of cigarettes that would have sold for about US$1.75 20 years ago would cost more than triple that now.

— Laws banning smoking in restaurants, bars and workplaces have popped up all over America. Airline flights have long been off-limits for smoking.

— Polls show that cigarette smoking is no longer considered normal behavior, and is now less popular among teens than marijuana.

— Federal officials are increasingly aggressive about anti-smoking advertising. The Food and Drug Administration launched a new youth tobacco prevention campaign last week. At about the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention debuted a third, US$60-million round of its successful anti-tobacco ad campaign — this one featuring poignant, deathbed images of a woman featured in earlier ads.

— Tobacco companies, once considered impervious to legal attack, have suffered some huge defeats in court. Perhaps the biggest was the 1998 settlement of a case brought by more than 40 states demanding compensation for the costs of treating smoking-related illnesses. Big Tobacco agreed to pay about US$200 billion and curtail marketing of cigarettes to youths.

— Retailing of cigarettes is changing, too. CVS Caremark, the second-largest U.S. pharmacy chain, announced last week it will stop selling tobacco products at its more than 7,600 drugstores. The company said it made the decision in a bid to focus more on providing health care, but medical and public health leaders predicted pressure will increase on companies like Walgreen Co. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to follow suit.

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