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updated 11/15/2010 2:21:03 PM ET 2010-11-15T19:21:03

A pat on the back for residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minn.: A new study finds that the Twin Cities exceed the national average in cutting back on tobacco.

The number of smokers in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area has dropped by half over the past three decades, according to research presented today (Nov. 14) at the American Heart Association's Scientific Sessions 2010. In 1980, just over 32 percent of residents smoked. In 2009, that number dropped to 15.5 percent for men and 12.2 percent for women.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20.6 percent of Americans smoke, a number that has declined from 33.2 percent in 1980. The latest anti-smoking proposal by the Food and Drug Administration is printing graphic anti-smoking ads on cigarette cartons.

"Overall, the news was good," study leader Kristian Filion, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, told LiveScience. "During the study period, we saw a dramatic decrease in the proportion of people who smoke in the Twin Cities area. We also found that among people who continued to smoke, they smoked fewer cigarettes over time."

Smoking declines

The study sampled between 3,000 and 6,000 residents of the Twin Cities six times between 1980 and 2009. The participants, who were between the ages of 25 and 74, reported whether they smoked, how much they smoked and when they had first picked up the habit.

Both male and female smokers in the study report starting to smoke regularly just under the age of 18, a number that held steady over 30 years for men but dropped from 19 years of age in 1980 for women. Adjusting for age, the researchers found that the average number of cigarettes smoked per day per person decreased from an average of 23.5 to 13.5 in men and from 21.1 to 10 in women during that time period.

However, the decreases weren't constant across the board, said Filion. People with higher income and higher education cut back on smoking more over the past 30 years than the poor and less-educated. In 1980, 29 percent of men with more than a high school education smoked, compared with 11 percent today. Among men with a high school education or less, those numbers were 42 percent in 1980 and 31 percent today.

"The change in different population subgroups suggests that the message either isn't reaching those with lower income or less education as much, or it's not being received as well," Filion said. "Further research is needed to figure out why."

Falling funding

Minnesota has long been a leader in anti-tobacco efforts, said Peter Fisher, the vice president for state issues for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. The state taxes cigarettes at slightly above the national average and has strong laws against smoking in public places, he said. Finally, a large tobacco settlement in the 1990s provided Minnesota a fund for ClearWay Minnesota, a nonprofit anti-tobacco organization. That means the funding for anti-smoking campaigns in Minnesota is not so dependant on the whims and vicissitudes of state legislatures, said Fisher, who was not involved in the current study.

"Unfortunately, most states are cutting back on their prevention and cessation funding over the past several years due to budget crises," Fisher told LiveScience. These funding cuts have been evident in the rates of decline in tobacco use, he said.

"Smoking has been coming down for many, many years," he said. "But the rate of decline in the past three to four years has certainly slowed and may be stopping altogether."

Filion said his research highlights the need for anti-smoking efforts targeted at lower-income populations: "We've made substantial improvements, but smoking remains an important public health issue."

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

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