By E.J. Mundell and Alan Mozes
TUESDAY, Nov. 17, 2015 (HealthDay News) -- The number of American adults who light up has fallen to a new low of just 14.9 percent, according to the latest figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Just last week, the CDC published 2014 figures showing that last year, 16.8 percent of adults smoked. But the new statistics -- which tracked smoking rates to June of this year -- show the number has tumbled even further.
Compare that to the nearly 25 percent of U.S. adults who smoked in 1997, and it's clear real progress has been made, one expert said.
"This is indeed encouraging news that suggests that investment in public health and education initiatives to reduce smoking rates among adults are paying off," said Dr. Charles Powell. He directs the Mount Sinai--National Jewish Health Respiratory Institute in New York City.
The latest figures were published online Nov. 17 by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics.
The CDC researchers said that men still smoke more than women, at 17 percent and about 13 percent, respectively. And people under 65 smoke more than seniors, with rates of about 16 percent and 8 percent, respectively.
The 2014 statistics, released last week by the CDC, also suggested that the average number of cigarettes smoked each day has fallen as well -- from nearly 17 per day in 2005 to fewer than 14 by 2014.
However, the CDC pointed out that smoking still kills half a million Americans every year, so the battle against the carcinogenic habit is far from over.
"To get rates even lower, we need to put more resources and attention to our youth, for whom smoking rates are increasing and for whom the effects of cigarette smoke exposure can be particularly damaging," said Powell, who is also professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.
Another expert said new challenges have also emerged in the past few years.
"While a drop in smoking in adults is encouraging, there is still the issue of teenage 'vaping' (electronic cigarettes) -- which often leads to smoking after the vaping habit is eliminated," said Dr. Len Horovitz, a pulmonary specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
"We cannot become complacent when looking at this drop in smoking in adults," he said.
The CDC report on the 2014 data also found big disparities in rates of smoking between different groups.
For example, investigators found that smoking rates among uninsured adults and Medicaid recipients were twice that of people with private insurance or seniors on Medicare.
Those with only a high-school degree and non-whites also were far more likely to smoke than better-educated adults and/or whites, the researchers found.
Smoking rates in 2014 were about 28 to 29 percent for the uninsured and for Medicaid enrollees, with similar numbers among multi-racial Americans, Native Americans and the very poor, the CDC reported. Among those with only a high school education, 43 percent were found to smoke in 2014.
Still, progress is being made. Brian King, deputy director for research translation at the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health in Atlanta, pointed to some possible reasons why.
"Interventions like increasing the price of tobacco and the passage of comprehensive smoke-free laws at both the state and local levels have made a difference," he said when the 2014 data was released. Mass-media education campaigns led by the CDC and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration have also contributed to dropping smoking rates, King added.
However, as cigarette smoking declines, people are turning to other ways of getting nicotine, King said. "We're seeing increases in the use of e-cigarettes and hookah use, particularly among American youth," he said.
"Going forward, we really need to carefully look at how all the different tobacco products are being used, and make sure we're not simply playing a game of whack-a-mole," King said.
There's more on national smoking goals at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.