Federal health officials have announced the start of the first national telephone line designed to help smokers quit, while new federal figures show that adult smoking rates decreased only slightly between 2002 and 2003.

Bush administration officials say they have sent out $24 million in grants to expand quit lines in 38 states or help establish new lines in 12 states that lack them.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson also unveiled a new nationwide toll-free line, (800) QUIT-NOW (search), that will send callers to quit lines in their states or to operators at the National Cancer Institute.

Tobacco is blamed for about 440,000 U.S. deaths per year, making it the leading preventable cause of death in the nation. Half of the deaths are from cancer.

"Americans want to quit smoking and they should quit smoking. These initiatives will help Americans kick the habit and save their own lives," Thompson says.

Smokers who call quit lines can typically get advice on where to find stop-smoking groups (search) in their area or how to use smoking-cessation products like nicotine replacement patches or anti-smoking prescription drugs.

Smokers ready to quit can also set up callbacks with operators, who will check to make sure they have not relapsed, says Mary Anne Bright, the National Cancer Institute’s director of cancer information.

Several studies show that quit lines are modestly effective and that smokers who call more or stay on the line longer with counselors have more success quitting. Studies of 26 groups have shown that use of the lines increases the odds of quitting by approximately 20%, according to Public Health Service guidelines published in 2000.

Other interventions, including patches and some drugs, are substantially more effective. But quit lines could prove effective if widely used, says Scott Leischow, PhD, the HHS senior advisor for tobacco policy.

“It’s not the most dramatic effect,” he says of the lines. “But what makes it potentially more effective is the population scale,” he says.

Californiawas the first state to establish a free quit line. Other states followed in increasing numbers since the 1999 tobacco settlement in which cigarette companies agreed to pay states an estimated $246 billion.

Smoking Down Only Slightly

But use of the lines does not appear so far to have had an appreciable impact on overall smoking rates. Since 1990, the number of U.S. adult smokers has declined only slightly, according to the CDC.

CDC figures released Wednesday show that 22.1 percent of American adults still smoked in 2003, down one percentage point from the year before.

The rate of decline is not rapid enough to meet federal public health goals to cut smoking to 12 percent of the adult population by 2010, CDC researchers warned.

“We’re reaching the tipping point now and the worst thing would be to tip backward,” Thompson says.

By Todd Zwillich, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Tommy G. Thompson, Secretary of Health and Human Services. Mary Anne Bright, director of cancer information, National Cancer Institute. Scott Leischow, PhD, senior advisor for tobacco policy, HHS. Treating Tobacco Use and Dependence, U.S. Public Health Service, 2000. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Nov. 12, 2004.