By Salimah Ebrahim
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - While more Americans than ever before are quitting their cigarette habit, a growing number are also turning to large cigars and pipes, suggesting that gains in curbing tobacco consumption may be more elusive than previously thought.
The findings were outlined in a report released on Thursday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overall consumption of smoked tobacco products declined 27.5 percent between 2000 and 2011, but use of noncigarette smoked tobacco products increased by a whopping 123 percent in that same time.
One major culprit for the trend is likely price, particularly in the latter part of the decade as Americans grappled with a weak economy and high unemployment.
In 2009, a federal excise tax was enacted and as a result, pipe tobacco, loose tobacco and cigars were taxed at a significantly lower rate than cigarettes. Responses by the tobacco industry to the tax and resulting price shifts have further compounded the problem, according to the CDC.
"Cigarette-like (tobacco products), formerly thought of as small cigars, have been modified slightly by the manufacturers .... so that they can be taxed at the lower rate," said Terry Pechacek, CDC's Associate director of science, and an author on the report.
As a result, such small cigars which resemble cigarettes are far cheaper, selling for about $1.40 per pack versus $5, Pechacek said. Younger consumers in particular are responding to the shift in pricing and consumption patterns.
"The rise in cigar smoking, which other studies show is a growing problem among youth and young adults, is cause for alarm," said Tim McAfee, director of CDC's Office on Smoking and Health.
McAfee cited a recent report from the U.S. surgeon general, which showed that nearly all smokers start before they are 26 years old, making young consumers the most important target for stopping the epidemic.
The CDC said tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States, killing nearly half a million Americans each year.
Health issues linked to smoking include heart and lung disease, several types of cancer, reproductive effects and other chronic diseases, costing the taxpayer $193 billion annually in direct health care expenses.
(Reporting by Salimah Ebrahim; Editing by Michele Gershberg; Desking by Andrew Hay)