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U.S. medical school graduates are woefully unprepared to help patients quit smoking, the nation's most deadly preventable health-care problem, a study concludes.

The researchers surveyed nearly every accredited medical school in the country and found very little course work devoted to nicotine dependence.

They called the statistics distressing, given National Cancer Institute recommendations from seven years ago that training in how to kick the habit be made mandatory at every U.S. medical school.

The findings appear in the current Journal of the American Medical Association.

Researchers looked at responses from 122 of 126 medical schools about course offerings in the 1996-97 school year. Not all schools answered every question.

Thirty-two out of 102 medical schools dedicated an average of less than one hour of classroom time per year in smoking-cessation techniques.

There was more tobacco-related instruction in the first two years of medical school. But only three schools reported having a required course devoted to tobacco education in the third and fourth years.

And almost 70 percent of schools -- 83 of 120 -- did not require any smoking-cessation training at all in those two years, when students theoretically are learning how to apply their knowledge to patients.

In another report, the journal said the number of applicants to U.S. medical schools declined for the second straight year last year and will be down even more this fall.

David M. Trabilsy, assistant dean at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said the robust economy is encouraging many potential doctors to try other fields.

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