Americans bought as many cigarettes last year as they did in 1951, when the population was half what it is today.
A new report by the National Association of Attorneys General said that the nation's per capita consumption of tobacco fell to levels last found in the 1930s.
Cigarette sales declined more than 20 percent since tobacco companies reached a $246 billion settlement with the states in 1998. The pact required companies to reimburse states for the billions of dollars they spend treating smoking-related illnesses. Sales were 378 billion last year, a 4.2 percent drop from 2004, association leaders said, using data from cigarette taxes.
The association said the settlement drove up cigarette prices, which in part led to the decline in sales.
Local health directors agree that high prices serve as a deterrent to teens. “Data shows that a tax increase does affect the use of tobacco,” said Betty Mallen, the Hancock County (Iowa) Public Health Director. “If we raise taxes, many kids won't be able to afford cigarettes,” she told the Britt News-Tribune. “Anything we can do to prevent them from starting means we don't have to help them quit.”
Other reasons for the drop in sales are limits on cigarette advertising and a negative image of cigarette smoking, the attorneys general association said.
"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," Tom Miller, Iowa's attorney general, told the Washington Post. Miller is co-chairman of the National Association of Attorneys General's tobacco committee.
Various states and local governments are considering cigarette tax increases or other legislation.
In Missouri, a proposed constitutional amendment would dedicate part of a tobacco tax increase to requiring licensure of tobacco retailers and hiring enforcement agents and clerks. Missouri, Minnesota and Wyoming are the only states that don't license tobacco retailers. Minnesota allows cities to do the licensing.
"They're not licensed presently, so we don't even have a good idea who is retailing cigarettes and tobacco products to the public," Pete Lobdell, supervisor of Missouri's Division of Alcohol and Tobacco Control, told the Associated Press. "If you don't have them identified, it's hard to keep track of the criminals who are selling tobacco products."
In Mississippi, the House has sent a second bill to Gov. Haley Barbour that would cut taxes on groceries and increase them on cigarettes. Barbour vetoed the first bill. The latest bill would cut the 7 percent grocery tax in half, while increasing the cigarette excise tax to 80 cents a pack this July 1 and then to $1 a pack a year later. The excise tax is currently 18 cents a pack.