Amid Smoking Decline, Look Who's Still Lighting Up : Shots - Health News Analysts say the merger of Reynolds American and Lorillard is driven by the changing demographics of smoking. But the lower smoking rate masks a more complex and varied pattern of cigarette usage.
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Amid Smoking Decline, Look Who's Still Lighting Up

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Amid Smoking Decline, Look Who's Still Lighting Up


The U.S. tobacco market is in flux. Earlier this month, R.J. Reynolds announced plans to buy its rival, Lorillard. This comes as the number of smokers continues to decline. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports on who still smokes.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Robin Koval is making a career of her changed habit.

ROBIN KOVAL: I'm a child of a smoker. My father was a heavy smoker. And so, you know, really typical to the way the story goes. I started smoking when I was 15.

NOGUCHI: Koval is now president and CEO of Legacy, a foundation devoted to preventing tobacco use. In the 1960s, more than 40 percent of Americans smoked. Now, that's down to 18 percent. Not only are fewer people smoking, heavy smokers are consuming fewer cigarettes.

KOVAL: We are winning the war. I guess from my perspective, we'd rather win the war faster.

NOGUCHI: Koval says the overall numbers mask a huge cultural variation.

KOVAL: I live in Washington, D.C. We have a low smoking rate here. But if you go to a state like West Virginia, which has the highest smoking rate in the country, the behavior still feels completely normalized.

NOGUCHI: Smoking is far more common among those living below the poverty level, those with GED level of education and among American Indian or Alaskan Natives according to the Centers for Disease Control. Rates are also much higher in the lesbian, gay and transgender community. So Legacy trains educators and targets its anti-smoking message to those populations. But Koval says companies like Reynolds and Lorillard know their market well.

KOVAL: I think this merger, for instance, is very much about menthol. While menthol usage is declining, along with all cigarette usage, it's declining at a much slower rate - about half the rate, I believe, as regular flavored cigarettes.

NOGUCHI: And because menthols are popular among African-Americans, the companies focus ads and coupons there. David Howard, a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds, acknowledges menthol is a factor in the merger. But the driving force is what he calls smokeless products.

DAVID HOWARD: For R.J. Reynolds, I mean, the focus is on innovation and providing innovative smoke-free alternatives for adult tobacco consumers to consider.

NOGUCHI: Notably, electronic cigarettes, which are a small but growing market. Howard says he expects the market for e-cigarette, snuff and nicotine patches could grow as traditional cigarettes continue to fall out of favor. Iris DeLutro is 63 and from Queens, New York, and typifies the changing habits of smokers these days.

IRIS DELUTRO: I've cut down dramatically. I used to smoke a pack and a half.

NOGUCHI: DeLutro says she used to smoke while working at her desk, but times have changed, and so have her own attitudes. Now she's hoping to use the patch to try to quit altogether.

DELUTRO: I don't smoke indoors at all. My apartment is smoke-free. I don't let my grandsons see me smoking.

NOGUCHI: There are still enclaves where smoking is alive and well. The Midwest, where Sheila Martin lives, has a higher smoking rate than other areas and nearly double what it is in the West.

SHEILA MARTIN: My mom and dad smoked when I was growing up. I don't know anybody whose parents didn't smoke.

NOGUCHI: Martin owns a tavern in Hutchinson, Kansas which still permits smoking. Her bar was grandfathered in under a state smoking ban. And Martin wants very much to keep it that way.

MARTIN: In a country where people have the right to assemble, you know, as long as tobacco is sold and sanctioned by the government, they're making a lot of money on it. People ought to be allowed to choose.

NOGUCHI: But even a diehard smoker like Martin says she may consider e-cigarettes.

MARTIN: If I decided I didn't enjoy it anymore, I think I probably would try the e-cigs.

NOGUCHI: There may come a time, she says, when she'll take up a smokeless alternative like some of her customers. But that day has not yet come. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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