AMERICAN smoking rates have dropped by more than half in the 50 years since the U.S. Surgeon General released a landmark report linking tobacco use to cancer and other diseases. But Washington must do more locally to protect those gains.
Only about 12 percent of adults in King County smoke, yet one in five deaths is attributed to tobacco use. Health problems and lost wages due to smoking total about $343 million per year. Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable death, outpacing alcohol, suicide, murder, fires and car crashes combined.
A 2012 King County report highlights significant disparities between smokers and non-smokers:
• Low-income adults earning $25,000 annually are three times more likely to be smokers than high-income adults making at least $75,000 annually.
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• About 21 percent of African-American adults and 23 percent of mixed-race adults smoke compared with 11 percent of white adults.
• South King County has considerably fewer smoke-free policies in city parks and college campuses. Its ethnically diverse population also experiences major gaps in education attainment and income level compared with other parts of the county — all factors that make the residents of those areas more likely to smoke.
• Most smokers begin as youth. Nearly 15,000 high-school seniors report they’ve used cigarettes or tobacco alternatives within the last month.
The tobacco industry continues to stay a step ahead of public-health campaigns by spending about $88 million annually on marketing in Washington. The companies entice new and younger smokers with flavored cigarettes, snuff, chew and other alternatives. State lawmakers should revise rules to stop the advertising barrage.
Smoking rates steadily declined statewide during the same years in which money from a 1998 tobacco settlement was invested in prevention and cessation. Beginning in 2009, lawmakers diverted that money because of budget shortfalls.
Reductions in adult smoking have leveled off.
A $10.5 million tobacco settlement check is on its way to Washington. This is an opportunity to rebuild a comprehensive prevention program. For every dollar spent, the state saves $5 in hospital costs. Legislators may be tempted to direct that money to other causes. They shouldn’t.
Fifty years from now, King County ought to be able to report our community kicked a deadly addiction for good and saved more lives along the way.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).