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California smoking rate reaches lowest level on record

Aggressive tobacco control campaigns by state and local governments have helped reduce the California smoking rate from 25.9% in 1984 to 11.9% last year, officials say.

August 06, 2011|By Duke Helfand, Los Angeles Times

Californians are kicking the habit.

The rate of adult smoking has dropped sharply over the last two decades, reaching its lowest level on record, thanks largely to aggressive tobacco control campaigns by state and local governments, officials said.

Last year, 11.9% of Californians said they smoked, down from 25.9% in 1984, the earliest data available, according to the California Department of Public Health. Only one other state, Utah, had a lower smoking rate, 9.1%, last year.

Smoking rates also have dropped nationally, but California remains far below U.S. levels — all other states combined had a smoking rate of 17.8% last year.

Officials point out that middle school and high school students are smoking less but say much of California's drop is due to declining cigarette use among young adults ages 18 to 24, which includes people such as 21-year-old Elise Irvine.

"People who smoke don't have it together," the USC student said recently as she ate lunch at the campus center. "It's a poor life decision."

Experts credit California's 22-year-old tobacco control program, the longest running in the country, for shaping that type of attitude.

With money from a 1988 voter-approved tobacco tax, the program has run media and school campaigns and funded other efforts to spotlight the dangers of smoking.

Over the last two decades, meanwhile, California has moved to ban smoking in bars, restaurants, in-state flights and most enclosed workplaces.

The combined efforts, state officials say, have prompted smokers to quit or cut back, reducing the prevalence among youth, saving lives and slashing billions of dollars in healthcare costs.

The trends, experts say, are good news for those attempting to stem the spread of tobacco in a state where smoking contributes to about 36,000 deaths annually.

"We have changed the social norms," said Colleen Stevens, chief of the state health department's tobacco control branch. "Younger people are growing up in an environment where there is very little smoking."

duke.helfand@latimes.com

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