Heavy smoking—over 20 cigarettes per day—has dramatically declined in California and the United States since 1965, according to a University of California, San Diego study.  The study is published in the March 16, 2011 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In California, heavy smokers declined from 65 percent of all smokers to 23 percent (2.6 percent of the population); in the U.S., these numbers dropped to 40 percent (7.2 percent of the population). These statistics also reflect the more significant drop in lung cancer patients in California than in the rest of the nation.

“Gone are the days when the average smoker had a pack-a-day habit,” said John P. Pierce, Ph.D., Sam M. Walton Professor of Cancer Research in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

“We’ve seen a steady decrease in the number of young smokers who reach that dependence level as well as an increased number of smokers who quit.”

The study analyzed major national surveys conducted since 1965 in California and the United States. During the 1960s, smoking more than a pack of cigarettes a day was normal for a majority of smokers. That habit, however, has dropped rapidly across the nation and even more quickly in California. Among younger people, only a small percentage are expected to regularly smoke even 10 cigarettes per day.

“There are a number of reasons why the decline in heavy smokers has been greater in California than in the rest of the nation,” said Pierce.

“California was the first state to aggressively raise its cigarette tax in 1968 and from 1968-2007, the price of cigarettes was higher in California than the average for the rest of the nation. California was also the first state to introduce an ongoing, well-funded comprehensive tobacco control program which has been in place since 1989.”

Pierce believes that the rest of the nation lags behind California in population norms supporting smoke-free environments and that these differences are not explained by demographic changes.

California lung cancer death rates peaked in 1987 at 109 per 100,000 and continued to decline to 77 per 100,000 in 2007. In the rest of the nation, lung cancer deaths were highest in 1993 at 117 per 100,000 and dropped to 102 per 100,000 by 2007. Therefore, the highest lung cancer rates occurred 13 to 17 years after the apparent peak in prevalence of high intensity smoking.

“Our research indicates that fewer than 10 percent of young Californians and fewer than 20 percent of young residents in the rest of the nation will ever reach even half a pack per day, and lung cancer rates should continue to drop at a faster rate in California over the next 15 years,” added Pierce.

Source:  University of California