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(Reuters) - Cigarette smoking among American teenagers dropped to a record low in 2012, a decline that may have been partly driven by a sharp hike in the federal tobacco tax, researchers said on Wednesday.
An annual survey of about 45,000 students in the eighth, 10th and 12th grades found that the overall proportion of those saying they had smoked in the prior 30 days fell by just over a percentage point to 10.6 percent.
"A one percentage point decline may not sound like a lot, but it represents about a 9 percent reduction in a single year in the number of teens currently smoking," Lloyd Johnston, the principal investigator in the study, said in a statement.
He said reductions on that scale can translate into the prevention of thousands of premature deaths and tens of thousands of cases of cancer and other serious disease.
More than 400,000 Americans are estimated to die prematurely each year as a result of cigarette smoking - the No. 1 cause of preventable U.S. deaths - and most smokers begin their habit as adolescents, experts say.
Healthcare advocates hailed Wednesday's findings as evidence that higher cigarette taxes were paying off, combined with federal curbs on youth-oriented tobacco marketing and sales and a sweeping anti-smoking media campaign.
The researchers also cited the increase in federal cigarette taxes, raised by 62 cents a pack in 2009, as a likely contributing factor. The findings were part of an annual survey by University of Michigan researchers released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Smoking rates fell for each of the individual age groups surveyed, most notably among eighth graders - from 6.1 percent in 2011 to 4.9 percent in 2012, the survey found.
Longer-term trends showed teen smoking rates dropping by about three-fourths among eighth graders, two-thirds among 10th graders and by half among 12th graders since a peak in the mid-1990s, researchers said.
One reason cited by experts is that the proportion of students who have ever tried smoking has declined sharply. Whereas nearly half of all eighth graders had tried cigarettes in 1996, just 16 percent had done so this year.
Teen attitudes toward smoking also continued to become more negative. For example, 80 percent of teens said they preferred to date nonsmokers in 2012.
But anti-tobacco advocates said their battle to stamp out teen smoking was far from over, noting that 17 percent of high school seniors still graduate as smokers.
Researchers singled out concerns over new forms of smokeless tobacco, including dissolvable products like Camel-branded "Orbs" and "Strips," and a fine, moist form of snuff called snus (rhymes with "loose"), which users place under their upper lip.
They said a significant portion of older teens have experimented with small cigars and water pipes called hookahs, which are becoming popular among young adults.
"We cannot let our guard down when the tobacco industry still spends $8.5 billion a year - nearly $1 million ever hour - to market its deadly and addictive products and is pushing new products ... that entice youth," said Susan Liss, executive director for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Stacey Joyce