A new survey shows the adult smoking rate in Minnesota has dropped to 16 percent, nearly a full percentage point lower than the smoking rate three years ago.
Smokers are smoking fewer cigarettes, and some have cut back on the number of days that they smoke, according to the fourth Minnesota Adult Tobacco Survey.
Exposure to second-hand smoke in Minnesota is down dramatically too. But there is at least one troubling trend. The report shows a growing number of smokers are picking up a new tobacco habit: smokeless tobacco products.
Previous reports, conducted every three or four years since 1999, also showed a steady decline in the number of Minnesota smokers.
During that time, smokers have had to absorb a couple of large cigarette tax increases. They also faced more restrictions on where they can smoke, after the state's Freedom to Breathe act in 2007 prohibited smoking in bars and restaurants.
It's likely that those tobacco-control efforts heavily influenced smokers' behavior, said Raymond Boyle, director of research programs for ClearWay Minnesota, one of the groups that conducted the survey.
"What this suggests is that they are changing. They're having to adapt. They're having to modify based on price changes. They're having to modify based on restrictions on where they can smoke," Boyle said. "So what they're doing is smoking less, and for some of them, smoking on fewer days."
Boyle also credits Minnesota's ban on smoking in bars and restaurants with a steep drop in the number of people who say they're exposed to second-hand smoke. In the latest report, approximately 45 percent of people surveyed said they had some exposure to second-hand smoke in the previous week, whether it was at home, in a car or in another location. That's an 11 percent drop from the 2007 tobacco survey.
It also appears that the state's stricter smoking ban influenced behavior at home. The new survey reveals that more than 87 percent of Minnesotans have embraced smoke-free rules. That's up from 83 percent of survey participants three years ago.
"Their homes are smoke-free," Boyle said. "So they're voluntarily adopting bans on smoking in their homes. That's almost 9 out of 10 people."
But the report also revealed a troubling trend. While smoking and tobacco exposure rates declined, the use of smokeless tobacco products such as snuff and snus doubled from three years ago. In 2007, the rate of use was 4.4 percent. By 2010, it had risen to 9.6 percent.
Boyle said the difference corresponds with a sharp increase in advertising for smokeless products.
"All of the smokeless tobacco companies have essentially been bought by tobacco companies and they're now heavily promoting existing products and brand new products," he said. "So the marketplace is evolving for tobacco products. And it makes sense that smokers are adjusting to that marketplace."
Boyle is unsure at this point if the state's growing number of snuff and snus users will stick with their new tobacco habit or if they'll tire of it as they age. Most of the current users are young men.
Whatever the outcome, Minnesota Commissioner of Health Ed Ehlinger views it as a trend that could have been avoided. He thinks the state has become complacent about tobacco control efforts and missed an opportunity to stay ahead of the market.
"I think we took our eye off the ball a little bit," Ehlinger said. "And the tobacco industry notices when we take our eye off the ball and then they start their marketing campaigns to people who are in populations in particular who are more susceptible to the advertising that they have."
Overall, Ehlinger said, the 12 years of data from the Minnesota Adult Tobacco Survey demonstrate that the state has made substantial progress on reducing tobacco use. But he said the rate of change is no longer as rapid as it once was, and that could be a sign that the state will lose ground in the future.
"I think we need to continue to really focus on tobacco as the number one health problem in our society," he said. "We cannot accept the successes that we've had as, 'This is it. This is the end.' "
Results from the Minnesota Adult Tobacco Survey are based on telephone interviews with more than 7,000 Minnesotans. For the first time, the tobacco survey included cell phone users. The participants' behaviors are self-reported and therefore the survey results could be influenced by inaccuracies in that reporting.