Less than 29 percent of high school students in grades 9 to 12 admitted smoking at least once in the previous month in the 2001 national survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, down from 34.8 percent in 1999 and from 36.4 percent at the height of the epidemic in 1997.
The prevalence of smoking fell among male and female students as well as for whites, blacks and Hispanics, the only racial groups counted in the survey.
The CDC, which hopes to reduce smoking among students to 16 percent or less by 2010, said cigarette price hikes, intensified anti-tobacco campaigns in schools and the mass media had likely contributed to the recent decline.
Dr. Terry Pechacek, a CDC smoking expert, said the nation had made significant progress reducing youth smoking since the late 1990s, but added that anti-tobacco programs should be expanded at the federal, state and local levels.
"We need continued efforts both in increasing price, in countermarketing, in limiting the exposure to youth to advertising, but particularly in school programs and school policies," Pechacek said in a conference call.
Nearly half a million Americans die each year from smoking-related lung cancer, heart disease and other illnesses, making smoking the No. 1 preventable cause of death in the United States.
Anti-smoking advocates say the toll could be dramatically reduced if authorities clamped down on tobacco advertising and raised taxes on cigarettes to make them less affordable, particularly to young people.
Cigarette prices soared 70 percent between December 1997 and May 2001 and could continue to rise if public health officials have their way. The CDC supports more than doubling the average excise tax on cigarettes to $2 a pack by 2010.
The recent decline in high school smoking came amid a wave of anti-tobacco programs and marketing campaigns. Many of them were funded through a landmark $206 billion settlement reached between tobacco companies and more than 40 states that sued the industry to recoup health-care costs for treating ill smokers.
"These measures are the equivalent of a vaccine that is working to protect our kids from the addiction, disease and death caused by tobacco use," Matthew Myers, president of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, said in a statement.
But Myers pointed out evidence from states such as Florida and California, showing cutbacks in tobacco prevention could stall and even reverse progress in reducing youth smoking.
The CDC study, which is conducted every two years, also showed fewer high school students were experimenting with smoking. About 64 percent of the 13,601 students who participated in the survey admitted ever trying a cigarette last year, down from 70.4 percent in 1999.
Those who reported smoking on at least 20 days a month, dipped to 13.8 percent in 2001 from 16.8 percent in 1999.