Heart advocates blame freeze in smoking cessation on 'shortsightedness' of policymakers

The recent stall in the decades-long decline in America's smoking rate has captured the attention of heart-care advocates, who said this week that the trend betrays a failure among the nation's policymakers to take more aggressive steps to fight the habit.

About 20 percent of American adults — nearly 47 million folks — smoke cigarettes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) revealed Tuesday, indicating tobacco use has leveled off after falling consistently for four decades.

"Between 2005 and 2009, there was no further reduction in tobacco use," CDC Director Thomas Frieden told reporters in a phone call Tuesday.

On top of that, CDC estimates 98 percent of kids living with smokers have detectible levels of tobacco toxins in their blood. "If you smoke and have kids, don't kid yourself — your smoking is harming your children," Frieden said. 

The numbers, said American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown, "reveal a shortsightedness among too many policymakers to take aggressive measures to reduce smoking rates." 

"Without bold action by our elected officials," Brown said in a statement, "too many lives, young and old, will suffer needlessly from chronic illness and burdensome health care expenses."

Frieden agreed, noting states with aggressive smoking cessation programs have cut rates well below the national average. The recession, Frieden said, hasn't helped in the battle against tobacco use, as many states have cut back on anti-tobacco programs to address budget concerns.

But the real culprit, Frieden said, is the tobacco industry itself. 

"The industry has gotten even better at side-stepping laws designed to get people to stop smoking," he said. "They ensure that every cigarette they sell delivers nicotine quickly and efficiently to keep people addicted."

"While government efforts are often standing still or even moving backward," he added, "the tobacco industry is not standing still."