Cigarettes are continuing to take a grim toll in American lives, killing more than 400,000 people a year despite a decline in smoking, the government reported.

Cigarette smoking was responsible for 434,000 deaths and the loss of nearly 1.2 million years of potential life before age 65 in 1988, the last year for which statistics were available, the Centers for Disease Control said Thursday.Most of the deaths, up from 390,000 in 1985, were from lung and throat cancer and respiratory and heart disease, the CDC said.

"The bottom line is that tobacco causes one-fifth of all deaths in this country each year. The death rates are higher than for alcohol, drugs, homicide, suicide, AIDS and auto accidents," said Dr. Thomas Novotny of the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health.

Moreover, it was "very likely" that the death rate from cigarette smoking has exceeded 400,000 per year since 1988, Novotny said.

"We don't have any data but we predict that the number of smoking-related deaths may go up perhaps for several decades," he said. "It certainly will go up for the near future as a result of those people who were smoking in the 50s, 60s and 70s."

In 1965, 40 percent of the population smoked. That figure had declined to 29 percent in 1987.

"It has been declining at about a half a percentage point a year over the last decade or so," Novotny said. "It's an encouraging decline and we expect that to continue, but there are still around 50 million adult smokers in the population."

Deaths attributed to smoking were 12 percent higher for blacks than for whites, underscoring "concerns about the higher burden of smoking-related diseases among blacks than among whites," the CDC said.

In addition, blacks are less likely to quit smoking than whites, Novotny said.

The toll also is heavier on men than women, with men accounting for 66 percent of the total number of deaths and having double the death rate from smoking as women, the CDC said.

The toll number of deaths included 3,825 deaths from so-called passive smoking, the CDC said. Novotny noted a more recent analysis estimated that each year passive smoking is associated with 37,000 deaths from heart disease alone.