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OTTAWA (CP) - The smoking rate in Canada has dropped to 20 per cent, a nice round number that has some observers singing the praises of higher tobacco taxes, health warnings and laws to restrict where people can light up.
But the health minister and the Canadian Cancer Society said that despite the good news, including a big drop in the number of young women smoking, much remains to be done to win the battle of the butt.
The Canadian Tobacco Use Monitoring Survey from Statistics Canada found that 20 per cent of people 15 or older were still puffing last year, compared to 21 per cent in 2003 and 24 per cent in 2000.
Dr. Murray Kaiserman, director of research, surveillance and evaluation at the agency, said the decline is "exciting news" given how things stood four years ago.
"I would say it's quite a quick drop. At that time, we were probably faced with a resistant core of smokers, we didn't have many of the policies we have in place today. And we predicted taking 10 years to reach this level."
Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh said he was pleased to see the smoking rate edge downward.
"Nevertheless, the battle is not won yet," he said in a statement. "We must continue to work to reduce rates among high-risk groups, including young adults and aboriginal groups."
One way to do that is to raise tobacco taxes further, said Rob Cunningham of the Canadian Cancer Society.
"These new reductions in smoking in Canada are very encouraging, we've seen decreases among all segments of the population, but there's a lot we have to do. We need to have higher tobacco taxes, especially in the high population provinces of Ontario and Quebec and banning misleading terms such as light and mild."
He suggested that taxes should rise by at least $10 per carton of 200 cigarettes to counter price cuts by manufacturers for their so-called discount brands.
The Ontario and Quebec governments have kept their taxes lower relative to other provinces largely to avoid a resurgence of the rampant smuggling seen in the 1990s, when about 30 per cent of the population smoked.
According to the survey released Thursday, about 5.1 million Canadians over age 15 smoked in 2004. However, smokers said they were puffing fewer smokes - an average of 15 a day.
Health Canada says smoking is the most preventable cause of disease and early death in this country, with more than 45,000 people estimated to die prematurely this year in Canada due to tobacco use.
About 22 per cent of men were smokers, compared with 17 per cent of women.
Fewer young women smoked last year, but the habit was harder to kick for young men, Statistics Canada said.
Among women aged 20 to 24, the percentage of smokers dropped sharply, to 25 per cent last year compared with 30 per cent in 2003.
The smoking rate for men in the age group remained steady at about 31 per cent.
Among teens aged 15 to 19, the smoking rate was 18 per cent, with no difference between girls and boys.
While British Columbia stood out with the lowest level of smoking at 15 per cent, the rest of the country showed generally uniform rates of smoking ranging from 19 per cent to 24 per cent.
The survey also found that about half of smokers tried to kick the habit last year.
Francis Thompson, policy analyst with the Non-Smokers' Rights Association, attributes the decline in the overall smoking rate to the policies of various governments.
"We've seen large increases in tobacco taxes, we've seen big new health warnings on cigarette packs ... and most recently we've seen a series of provincial laws on smoking in workplaces, in particular in bars and restaurants that have been really very good."
There have also been restrictions on promotions and the display of cigarette packs at point of sale in some areas, he noted.
Over the course of a year, the tobacco use monitoring survey collected data over the telephone from more than 20,000 respondents.
Cunningham again called on the federal government to ban the terms light and mild, saying they lull smokers into the mistaken belief that the products are somehow less harmful.
The government said it would ban the terms more than four years ago but continues to study the issue.
© The Canadian Press, 2005