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Smoking rates are dropping more quickly for black people than white people, leading researchers to suspect that a decades-long racial gap in cigarette use has been erased.
And for the first time, the percentage of black men and white men who light up is essentially the same.
That is considered a victory, since men have accounted for nearly all of the difference in smoking rates between the races.
Experts attribute the shift --- documented in a report released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention --- to several factors: anti-smoking programs targeting African-Americans; a negative view of cigarettes among black teenagers; rising income levels among blacks; and a backlash against tobacco advertising directed at minorities.
"The African-American community has been very active about tobacco prevention and control," said Dr. Corinne Husten of the CDC's Office of Smoking and Health. "African-American kids are getting a much stronger message from their family and extended family about not smoking."
In the mid-1960s, soon after the U.S. Surgeon General's first report on the health hazards of cigarettes, 60.2 percent of black men and 51.4 percent of white men smoked. In 2000-2001, that dropped to 26.9 percent of black men and 25.6 percent of white men --- a statistical tie --- the CDC said.
Among women, 34 percent of both races smoked in the mid-1960s. In 2000-2001, it was 19.4 percent of blacks and 22.6 percent of whites.
The smoking rate decline has been swifter for blacks than whites for about three decades, but the CDC analysis provides the most current statistics. It says that in 2001, 24 percent of whites and 22.3 percent of blacks smoked. That is still a statistical dead heat, but researchers soon expect to proclaim that a smaller share of blacks smoke than whites.
One reason for the trend may be that smoking rates for black teenagers started dipping below rates for white teenagers in the late 1970s, Husten said. The teenagers from that time are now in their 30s and 40s, so the shift may be showing up among adults.
Focus groups indicate that black youths don't view smoking as "cool" or something that the "in crowd" does, Husten said.
Another factor could be a rise in the economic status of African-Americans, said Tom Glynn, a tobacco researcher at the American Cancer Society. "One of the primary predictors of tobacco use is income level," he said.
Dr. Daniel Blumenthal, chairman of the Department of Community Health and Preventive Medicine at Morehouse School of Medicine, said tobacco advertising in minority neighborhoods has led to a counterattack.
"There are many people in the minority community who have been angry about cigarette companies putting billboards with African-American models in African-American neighborhoods, and they're fighting back."
Whatever seems to be working with blacks apparently isn't extending to Native Americans, who have the highest smoking rate, at 32.7 percent, the CDC's Husten said.
Overall, 22.8 percent of American adults smoked in 2001, down from 25 percent in 1993.
Georgia's rate has been slightly above the national average the past five years. Last year in the state, 24.6 percent of whites and 18.9 percent of blacks smoked.
Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution