updated 10/31/2003 6:38:02 PM ET 2003-10-31T23:38:02

For the first time, the smoking rate among black men in the United States has dipped to nearly that among white men - a victory federal officials Thursday attributed in part to a decades-old change in attitudes.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 27.7 percent of black men smoked in 2001, compared with 25.4 percent of white men. A decade before, the rates were 35 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

Although the CDC does not know exactly what has caused the sharp drop, officials believe changes in attitudes among black youths three decades earlier have helped reduce the number of today’s adult smokers.

“Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, the smoking prevalence for African-American youth really started to decline and remains lower and lower,” said Dr. Corinne Husten, medical officer in the CDC’s Office of Smoking and Health.

The smoking rate for black women has been lower than that of white women since 1993; in 2001, nearly 23 percent of white women smoked, compared with less than 18 percent of black women.

Surveys conducted by CDC officials in the early to mid-1990s discovered that smoking was wildly unpopular among black youths.

“African-American youth viewed smoking as a ‘white thing,”’ Husten said. “There were strong parental messages not to smoke and smoking was disrespectful. It was viewed that if you were a smoker, you were a loser, it would interfere with people getting a job and with your reputation.”

Overall, the U.S. smoking rate - 22.8 percent in 2001, the latest data available - has dropped from a quarter of adults in 1993. But that is not a steep enough drop to ensure the rate will be reduced to less than 12 percent, a national goal for 2010, the CDC said.

Hispanic and Asian men and women had lower smoking rates than whites or blacks in 1991, but the smoking rate was above 30 percent for American Indian men and women.

Husten said that states, in a time of budget crises, have not been able to provide enough funding for smoking prevention programs. Only six states in 2002 - Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Ohio - spent at or above the CDC’s recommended funding levels for tobacco programs, the CDC said.

“The real story is overall decline is so small - we’re not going to come anywhere near to our overall objectives if we don’t help people quit smoking,” said Danny McGoldrick of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

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