Smoking rate rises slightly

The battle to get adult smokers in the United States to quit has stalled. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in November that 20.6 percent of adults — about 46 million — were smokers in 2008, up slightly from 19.8 percent in 2007.

Although the smoking rate has dropped sharply since the mid-1960s, when it hovered around 40 percent, the CDC had hoped to lower the rate to 12 percent or less by 2010. The lack of progress is dismaying to health officials because smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the United States, killing 443,000 people a year.

Despite cigarette price hikes, antismoking ad campaigns and smoking bans in offices and restaurants, adult smoking rates have changed little since 2004, partly because the efforts haven't been widespread enough, the CDC says. So what does work? If you're trying to quit, consider these proven methods:

* Exercise: Physical activity changes the way the brain processes information, reducing the cravings for nicotine, according to research from the University of Exeter published earlier this year in the journal Psychopharmacology. Other studies have shown that just one short burst of moderate exercise — a brisk walk for as little as five minutes, for example — can significantly reduce smokers' nicotine cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

* Seek out other quitters: Smokers are twice as likely to kick the habit if they use a support group, found a University of Bath study published in the February issue of Addiction. More than a third of smokers using support groups quit after four weeks, almost double the proportion of those using one-to-one support.

* Try a substitute: Strong and consistent evidence shows that nicotine replacement products can help people quit smoking. Nicotine patches, gum, lozenges, nasal spray and inhaler are equally effective, says the National Cancer Institute.

* Cut back: Cutting back on the number of cigarettes smoked, coupled with nicotine replacement, raised the quit rate in 16 of 19 studies reviewed by University of Vermont researchers, who said their 2006 findings contradict the commonly held belief that smokers must stop abruptly.

* Drugs: The FDA has approved two prescription drugs — bupropion, an antidepressant marketed as Zyban, and Varenicline, which is marketed as Chantix — to help reduce the urge to smoke.