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(Reuters) - Youth tobacco use in the United States fell to historic lows in 2016, leading public health experts to speculate that a smoke-free generation may be within reach.
The number of middle and high school students who used any tobacco product fell to 3.9 million in 2016 from 4.7 million in 2015, figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show, the first such decline since the CDC began reporting the measure in 2011.
The number of high school students who smoked cigarettes in the 30 days prior to being surveyed fell to 8 percent from 9.3 percent in 2015, the data shows. In 2011 the number was 15.8 percent.
"This represents a historic public health victory," said Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, adding that the dramatic decline was the result of public messaging campaigns directed at youth.
The decline in e-cigarette use was even greater, falling to 11.3 percent of high schoolers in 2016 from 16 percent in 2015.
"These numbers are astounding," said Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor in the department of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health. "It really means that we may be within reach of a smoke-free generation."
The decline in cigarette use follows a broad array of public health campaigns and coincides with the rise of vaping.
"This should put to bed any remaining concerns that e-cigarettes are a gateway to cigarettes or will lead to a re-normalization of smoking," Siegel said.
Between 2011 and 2016 overall tobacco use remained unchanged, the CDC's figures show, though the balance between products changed. As e-cigarette use increased, traditional cigarette use declined.
Cigarette use among high school students fell during that period to 8 percent from 15.8 percent while use of cigars fell to 7.7 percent from 11.6 percent. At the same time use of e-cigarettes rose to 11.3 percent from 1.5 percent and use of hookahs rose to 4.8 percent from 4.1 percent.
President Donald Trump's proposed 2018 budget includes a nearly 20 percent drop in the CDC's disease prevention and health promotion programs, including eliminating dedicated funding for its Office on Smoking and Health.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said in a statement that while the latest figures were encouraging "it is critical that we work to ensure this downward trend continues over the long term across all tobacco products."
He said the agency had issued more than 4,000 warning letters to retailers for selling e-cigarettes, cigars or hookah tobacco to minors since youth access restrictions went into effect last August.
Gottlieb, who previously held a financial interest in the vape shop Kure, has said publicly that certain e-cigarettes may have the potential to wean smokers off combustible cigarettes.
The latest data showed no decline in cigarette use among middle school students, where the rate was 2.2 percent in 2016 and 2.3 percent in 2015. Among middle school students, 4.3 percent used e-cigarettes in 2016, down from 5.3 percent in 2015.
Analysts with Wells Fargo Securities expect sales of vaping products to reach $4.4 billion in 2017.
Reporting by Toni Clarke in Washington, additional reporting by Jilian Mincer in New York; editing by Chris Reese and Andrew Hay