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Price hikes pay off in sharp smoking decline

The number of cigarettes sold is dropping at double the usual rate.

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After decades of trying to curb smoking by warning about health effects, the US has found a new tool that seems far more effective: price.

In a little-noticed trend that could have important implications for the politics of tobacco, smoking is dropping at double its usual rate. The dramatic decrease in the number of cigarettes sold came after prices were hiked by 25 percent per pack nationally.

Securities analysts who follow tobacco companies believe consumption is down 6 to 7 percent across the US, compared with a less than 3 percent annual decline in past years. And the drop may be much greater in some "high tax" states: There could be as much as a 15 percent decline in Massachusetts and California, and a 17 percent drop in Alaska, which has a $1-per-pack cigarette tax, the highest in the nation.

The decline in tobacco use - if it holds up - could improve the nation's health overall, meaning lower costs for everything from Medicare to health-insurance premiums. "It would be hard to overstate the importance of this.... any significant drop in tobacco use is sure to have a dramatic effect on the nation's life expectancy,"says Cliff Douglas, president of Ann Arbor-based Tobacco Control Law & Policy Consulting.

Public-health officials, however, warn it may be too soon to tell if smokers are throwing out their lighters for good. "Studies have shown us that once ... addicted to the nicotine, most people will pay anything," says Linda Ford, president of the American Lung Association and a doctor in Omaha, Neb.

But, she adds, even people cutting back on the number of cigarettes they smoke would help. "Tapering down is the first part of reducing [an] addiction," she says.

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