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Editorial

The anti-smoking state

About 13% of Californians smoke, compared with 21% across the country. California has led the nation in the kinds of policy shifts that discourage smoking and protect nonsmoking passersby.

January 01, 2011

Smoking remains a particularly awful habit. Not only is it the leading cause of premature death in the United States, but it directly harms people who don't even touch it. All they have to do is be in the same vicinity as a smoker. Overeating is a national problem too, but there's no such thing as secondhand Twinkies.

So it's heartening to hear that the results of a state survey, released in December, show that adults in California are less likely to smoke than adults almost anywhere else in the nation. About 13% of Californians smoke, compared with 21% across the country. (Only Utah's smoking rate is lower.)

This didn't happen by accident. California has led the nation in the kinds of policy shifts that discourage smoking and protect nonsmoking passersby. Smoking is prohibited in public buildings, most workplaces and at many parks and beaches. Adults can't smoke in cars when children are present.

As injurious as we know smoking is, we're constantly learning more about its dangers. A 700-page report issued in December by Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin says there is no safe level of smoking, not even one cigarette a day. Exposure to any tobacco smoke causes inflammation and introduces toxic chemicals into the body, increasing the risk of many diseases in addition to the lung cancer and emphysema commonly associated with smoking. And, the report says, tobacco companies have tinkered with their products to make them more addictive, delivering bigger doses of nicotine more quickly while reducing the burning sensation that can discourage smoking.

The Food and Drug Administration is in the midst of choosing graphic warning labels to be emblazoned on cigarette packages. It should pick the most hideous and frightening ones, to match the truly scary effects of smoking. Other states should be adopting California-style rules that restrict smoking to small, private areas. California itself is about to release new anti-smoking ads, including some in Spanish and various Asian languages. That might not be the most efficient use of its advertising dollars, though. Statistics show that Latino and Asian residents are considerably less likely to smoke than other groups.

The population that most needs the state's attention is African Americans, 14.2% of whom smoke. Tobacco companies have gone to great lengths to market to black Americans; governments should be fighting back even harder. It can't hurt that President Obama has been trying to quit smoking. That's one arena in which we're glad to have a First Quitter.

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