Smoking continues to drop among U.S. adults, says the CDC. Still, the government wants to see a lot more people kick the cigarette habit — and the sooner, the better.

A little more than one in five adults smoke, says the CDC. That's 21.6 percent of American adults, or 45.4 million people. Those numbers are down from 22.5 percent in 2002 and 22.8 percent in 2001.

The numbers are based on the 2003 National Health Interview Survey, which included in-person interviews with nearly 31,000 noninstitutionalized civilians aged 18 or older. The results appear in the CDC's May 27 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

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Who's Smoking

Here's a quick look at the survey's findings:

—Current daily smokers: 37 million
—Current smokers who smoke on "some days": 9 million
—Lowest smoking prevalence: Asians (12 percent) and Hispanics (16 percent)
—Highest smoking prevalence: American Indians/Native Alaskans (40 percent)

More men than women were current smokers (24 percent of men and 19 percent of women). It's the first time since the CDC started monitoring smoking in 1965 that less than 20 percent of women were smokers, says the CDC.

Current smoking was most common among adults aged 25-44 years (26 percent), those living below the poverty level (30 percent), and those whose highest educational level was a General Educational Development (GED) diploma (44 percent).

Most Smokers Tried to Quit

Of current daily smokers, 15 million (41 percent) said they had stopped smoking for at least one day in the previous year because they were trying to quit smoking.

They might want to keep trying. Research shows that many people try several times before they successfully quit smoking.

For the second year in a row, ex-smokers outnumbered current smokers. About 91 million people in the U.S. have ever smoked, and 46 million of them (50.3 percent) don't smoke any more, says the CDC.

Click here to read Web MD's "10 Little-Known Reasons to Quit Smoking."

Fewest Young Smokers Since 1991

In 2003, young adults had the lowest smoking rate for that age group in 12 years (24 percent). The percentage is down from 28 percent in 2002, says the CDC.

However, people who were just a few years older had more smokers than any other age group. The smoking rate for adults aged 25-44 years was nearly 26 percent.

Smoking was rarest among senior citizens. Their smoking rate was 9 percent, says the CDC.

Stats on Nonsmokers

The survey defined smokers as those who said they had smoked 100 or more cigarettes in their lifetime. By that standard, 80 percent of blacks, 77 percent of Hispanics, and 61 percent of whites were lifelong nonsmokers, says the CDC.

More women than men were nonsmokers (70 percent of women and 64 percent of men).

When Quitters Are Winners

The CDC says it's glad to see smoking rates continue to drop. But the government's goal is for no more than 12 percent of U.S. adults to be smokers by 2010.

To reach that goal, the decline must speed up, says the CDC. The CDC's report calls for quit-smoking interventions tailored to the groups with the highest smoking rates.

Of course, there's much more at stake than a statistical goal. Countless studies have associated smoking with wide-ranging health problems including heart disease, stroke, and cancer — three leading causes of death for men and women alike.

Quitting can be hard, but it's possible. Health experts say it's worth it, even if cigarettes have been a constant companion for years. Support programs and medications may help; persistence is essential.

Click here to read Web MD's "Secondhand Smoke Hurts Heart Like Smoking."

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, May 27, 2005; vol 54: pp 509-513. WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: "Quitting Tobacco Use — Why Quit?" News release, CDC. WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise: "Quitting Tobacco Use — Strategies and Skills for Quitting."