Smoking rates for the state's adults and teens declined significantly over a two-year period, according to a new study by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Among those under 18, smoking dropped by 14 percent; for adults, it declined by 9 percent.
Although anti-tobacco groups praised the numbers, they said the improvement would probably not continue if the General Assembly goes ahead with plans to cut funding for the state's smoking-prevention program - one of the most aggressive in the nation.
"These numbers are terrific. Those declines are very significant," said Peter Fisher, director of state issues for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, a nationwide anti-smoking group. "But if you want to see that continue, you've got to put that money back."
"I think this is really, really good news. It confirms that these programs make a difference," said Joan Stein, who directs the state's smoking-prevention program and oversaw the study.
The results confirm a statewide survey of students released last August by the Maryland Department of Education. That survey reported large drops in cigarette smoking among several age groups.
For their report, Department of Health researchers interviewed more than 66,000 middle and high school students, along with 15,000 adults statewide. Surveys were conducted in 2000 and again in 2002.
The study was designed with assistance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Macro International Inc., a private research company.
"Maryland is one of the most progressive states as far as tobacco prevention," said Frances Stillman, an associate research professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies and promotes smoking-control programs.
From 1993 to 1999, Maryland's overall smoking rate declined by 4.3 percent, almost twice the national rate.
According to the latest study, just under 20 percent of Maryland adults smoke, about three percentage points lower than the national average. Rates around the country vary widely, from almost 33 percent in Kentucky to less than 13 percent in Utah.
Anti-tobacco groups are concerned that the General Assembly will cut Maryland's tobacco-control program's budget from its current level of $15 million. (Last year, the program's budget was halved, from $30 million.) That money comes from the $139 million Cigarette Restitution Fund, which Maryland receives annually as part of a 1998 multistate settlement with the tobacco industry.
Stein said budget cuts could damage the program. "If we get a significant reduction in funds, that would have an impact on what we're trying to accomplish," she said. "You really have to keep working on this."
Stillman said the smoking decreases the study identified were significant, particularly among young people. For those under 18, smoking rates dropped from 21.4 percent in 2000 to 18.4 percent in 2002.
More than 80,000 Maryland youth - and almost 10 times as many adults - use some form of tobacco. Nationwide, 4.5 million youths and 46.5 million adults smoke.
Stillman said the decrease likely had many contributing factors, including a 2002 cigarette tax increase of 34 cents a pack.
The report also found decreases in certain sub-populations. Smoking by pregnant women dropped from 9.2 percent to 8 percent, a 13 percent dip. And cigarette smoking by high school girls decreased by almost 25 percent.
The state health department will do another survey next year, and will report the results in 2006.