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HEALTH & FITNESS : Level of Smoking in County 10% Below U.S. Average

June 22, 1989|MIKE SPENCER | Times Staff Writer and

Cigarette smokers are a dying breed in Orange County in more ways than one, according to the latest Times Orange County Poll.

Their numbers seem to be dwindling daily. Only 17% of those polled by Mark Baldassare and Associates of Irvine said they still smoke cigarettes, compared to a recent Gallup Poll estimate of 27% nationally, the lowest figure in 45 years. (The Gallup Poll, however, included pipe and cigar smokers, while the Orange County Poll did not.)

Statistically, the Orange County findings cross sex and all age boundaries. The smoking population includes 14% of women and 20% of men and is fairly evenly distributed among age groupings: 18 to 34 (16%), 35 to 54 (19%) and over 55 (15%).

While smokers have never been in the majority in the United States, the latest figures are a far cry from the high of 45% reached in 1954, according to a Gallup spokeswoman.

Of even more significance is the number of people in Orange County who say they have successfully kicked the habit, especially in the age group (over 55) whose members were adults when cigarette smoking peaked in 1954. A full 41% of that group said they were former smokers.

(In the Gallup Poll, 63% of the smokers said they would like to quit, and 38% said they had tried but failed.)

The 10% difference between the national figures of those who still smoke and the Orange County number can be explained, Baldassare said, "by the fact that our population here tends to be more affluent, more highly educated and more interested in health and fitness issues."

The Gallup Poll also lists education as a key factor, showing the heaviest number of smokers among those who had no better than a high school education and the lowest percentage among college graduates.

"Much of the dramatic drop (in the number of smokers) can be attributed to the campaigns of the American Heart Assn. and other organizations," Baldassare said.

"Another important factor is that smoking has become increasingly difficult--both at work and in public places.

"And you can't rule out the fact that there is an increasing social stigma with smoking. It simply is no longer acceptable."

Baldassare also found significance in the number of Orange County residents who said they had never smoked at all, percentages that go up as the age goes down--signaling the possibility that peer pressure today is against smoking, rather than for it.

In the over-55 age group, the number who had never smoked was 44%, jumping up to 51% for the 35-to-54 group and then up to 69% for the 18-to-34 group.

Interestingly, none of the former smokers interviewed credited outside pressures--peer, media, medical or otherwise--for their decision to stop.

Typical was David Barton of Costa Mesa, who quit last year after 15 years of heavy smoking. "My decision was strictly a personal one and involved some life-style changes I decided to make," said Barton, 38.

"I used to live my life on the basis that I might die tomorrow. While it's still possible that I will die tomorrow, today I'm more interested in long-term planning and consequences. I'm living life with the expectation that I will live to somewhere between 75 and 90."

He said having a child also altered his view. "I am his role model for good or bad," Barton said. "My smoking wasn't good for him--or fair to him either."

Barton credits growing public awareness of the dangers of tobacco with the sharp decline in smoking statistics. "We're like the students in China today," he said. "They came to the United States and saw what real freedom was like and went back home and told their leaders, 'You lied to us.'

"Well, we now realize the tobacco companies lied to us. All the pretty packaging of cartons and single packs disguised a dangerous and addictive drug called nicotine."

None of the current smokers involved in post-poll interviews denied the existence of health dangers and all expressed a desire to eventually quit.

Paul St. James of Huntington Beach was typical of that group. "I can't argue with the anti-smoking people," said St. James, 29. "But I do get tired of the hypocrites, like the people in Beverly Hills who outlawed smoking in restaurants--restaurants they drive to in their terribly polluting Mercedes diesels.

"So many of these anti-smokers are the same people who see nothing wrong with dumping their sludge into the drains and polluting our oceans and drinking water."

He also resents, he said, "those people who try to make me feel like something less than human because I smoke--particularly the reformed smokers, who can be worse than religious converts" in their zeal.

St. James began smoking in his mid-teens and stopped on a challenge from his mother when he was 18. "I started again a few years later and then stopped again at the age of 25. Then I stopped drinking a couple of years ago and immediately began smoking again.

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