Despite several years of smoking declines through the late 1990’s and early 21st Century, the smoking rate in the U.S. has stalled for three consecutive years at almost 21 percent, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week citing 2006 data.

The data is disturbing, according to the CDC and one anti-smoking group, because smoking remains the No. 1 cause of preventable deaths, killing an estimated 438,000 Americans and costing the nation nearly $100 billion in medical expenses each year.

The CDC data comes from a 2006 national survey of 24,275 U.S. adults. The report said about 20.8 percent of American adults smoke, with 80 percent or 36.3 million of them smoking every day. The rest smoke “some days,” the report said.

The stall follows a 15.4 percent decline in smoking from 1997 to 2004, when the rate fell from 24.7 percent to 20.9 percent.

William V. Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, called on the federal and state governments to step up their anti-smoking efforts in light of the CDC report.

“It is troubling news for America's health that progress has stalled in reducing tobacco use,” Corr said in a statement. “It is also inexcusable that elected leaders have not done more given the overwhelming scientific evidence of what works to reduce tobacco use among both children and adults.”

Even more disturbing, said Corr, is that the most recent CDC data shows that 23 percent of high school students currently smoke.

The report also found that:

— Among current cigarette smokers surveyed, an estimated 44.2 percent (19.9 million) had stopped smoking for more than one day during the preceding 12 months because they were trying to quit.

— Of the estimated 91 million persons who had smoked at least 100 cigarettes during their lifetimes, 50.2 percent (45.7 million) had quit smoking at the time of the interview.

— Between 2002 and 2005, states cut funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs by 28 percent.

— Since 2002, increases in cigarette pricing have stalled.