Minorities More Likely to Light Up Less Often

Minorities More Likely to Light Up Less Often

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California’s smoking rate is down, state health officials announced today, but there’s a new front opening in the effort to curb tobacco use: occasional smokers.

The state’s smoking rate reached its lowest point—just over 13 percent in 2008, a decline of 42 percent since the start of the California Tobacco Control Program 20 years ago. During roughly the same period, however, the rate of non-daily or occasional smoking nearly doubled, from 14.8 percent in 1992 to just above 28 percent in 2008.

California now has the second-lowest smoking rate in the country. Dr. Mark Horton, director of the California Department of Public Health, said the reductions were seen across ethnic and racial groups.

Tobacco use was highest among African-Americans, at 14.2 percent, compared with 8.1 percent among Asians and 10.2 percent among Latinos. The highest smoking rates were seen among men, people with lower income and education levels, and rural residents.

Two-thirds of the state’s smokers are light or non-daily smokers, noted Dr. Rebecca Schane, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco and an attending physician at the SF Free Clinic. Light smokers are those who consume fewer than 10 cigarettes a day.

“Daily smokers are being outnumbered,” she said.

One explanation for the increase in occasional smoking, Schane said, is that the state has become better at screening for low levels of tobacco use.

“It’s a behavioral process that’s hard to quantify. Some people can go days without smoking and pick it up again,” she said.

Another reason for the shift to non-daily smoking, Schane said, are indoor smoking bans and soaring cigarette taxes, which have curbed consumption.

UCSF professor Eliseo Pérez-Stable offered a different theory for the shift: the state’s changing demographics. He said minorities are more likely to be occasional smokers than whites. U.S. Census data from 2003 found that 17 percent of whites were non-daily smokers, compared with 24 percent of blacks, 30 percent of Asians and 35 percent of Latinos

“The individuals more likely to be non-daily smokers is going up, and independent of that, the proportion of non-daily or light smokers has gone up,” Pérez-Stable said.

Schane said women are more likely than men to be non-daily smokers and tend to view occasional smoking as less risky than lighting up every day. But, she added, the health risks are just as high.

“If you smoke one or two cigarettes a day, it’s similar to someone who smokes 20 cigarettes a day,” she said, speaking about the risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, such as heart disease, heart attack and stroke.

Pérez-Stable noted that not much is known about how to help occasional smokers quit— a key challenge for the state’s tobacco- control efforts.

“Nobody who smokes at that level [as low as five cigarettes per day] has ever been studied for a cessation study,” he said. “They’re not eligible, no one would take them into a study. That’s really a flaw.”

While praising state programs that have driven down tobacco use and lowered exposure to secondhand smoke, Pérez-Stable added, “It’s [not] good enough to go from 20 [cigarettes] to five. I want [consumption] to go to zero.”

California health officials also announced the launch of a new statewide ad campaign to educate the public about the effects of smoking on health and the environment. The state’s tobacco-control program, funded through a 25-cent tax on each pack of cigarettes, has achieved $86 billion in health care cost savings to the state, health officials said.