California Joins Utah In Lowering Smoking Rates Below 12 Percent

California health officials say “smoking rates in the state are down to 11.9 percent, a new low.” The latest figures make it only the second state — after Utah — “to achieve a federal target of reducing adult smoking rates to 12 percent by 2020 so far”:

“California has always been in the forefront”, says Colleen Stevens, who heads the Tobacco Control Branch of the California Department of Public Health. Back in 1988 California taxpayers agreed to put a 25 cent tax on every pack of cigarettes. “No one had ever done this before,” says Stevens. The money was earmarked to pay for medical care for tobacco related illness. But it also funds tobacco research and tobacco control programs both in schools and local communities.

Today the California state tax on a pack of cigarettes is 87 cents. That’s quite a bit lower than the $2 in taxes charged by many other states. But California has reaped the benefits of other interventions over time, says Stevens. In addition to the tax, California became the first state in the nation to ban smoking at indoor work sites and restaurants in 1995 and then in bars in 1998, which was “absolutely unheard of at the time,” says Stevens.

Many people thought mandating smoke-free environments in bars just “went too far,” Stevens says. But today, she points to “a whole generation of 30- somethings who have never been to a smoky bar.” It’s expected now, she says, “that you can go to a bar and have a glass of wine and not come out smelling like smoke!” It all adds up to a social norm where tobacco is simply not acceptable.

Nationally, one in five Americans still smoke, and those rates tend to be higher among minority communities. One 2004 California study, for instance, found that “lesbian women were 70 percent more likely to smoke than other women, and gay men were more than 50 percent more likely to smoke than other men. More recent research suggests this number may be even higher. The LGBT National Tobacco Control Network estimates that the LGBT community is 50 percent to 200 percent more likely than others to be addicted to tobacco.”

The FDA has recently unveiled new graphic warning labels slated to appear on cigarette packs next fall, but experts say “the impact on tobacco sales will likely be marginal, at least early on. The new warnings are expected to cause a drop of less than 1 percent in U.S. tobacco sales by 2013, according to research firm IBISWorld.”