Smoking rates decline in California

A series of new anti-smoking commercials were unveiled Monday by the California Department of Public Health, along with the good news that smoking statewide has decreased 42 percent since 1988.

But as the ads disturbingly indicate, that isn’t enough. In one ad, a man takes a newborn baby into his arms, and bluntly states: “We’ve done a good job, but even if you were born today, you’d still grow up in a world where tobacco kills more people than AIDS, drugs, alcohol, murder and car crashes — combined.”

On Monday, the state revealed smoking statistics by county for the first time as well. The data show that smoking prevalence in San Luis Obispo County is the same as the statewide average rate at 13 percent — that is significantly lower than the national average smoking rate of 21 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nearly 4 million Californians still smoke, and tobacco remains the No.1 cause of preventable death and disease, according to the Department of Public Health.

Other ads feature the iconic Debi Austin, who in a 1997 anti-tobacco ad smoked through a tracheotomy in her neck. She is still alive, but the deathly-sounding wheezes of her speech are violent enough to extinguish the candle she holds — leaving the screen an ominous pitch black.

The ads, which will air beginning Jan. 10, also employ a new theme: calling attention to the environmental degradation caused by the 100 million pounds of toxic cigarette butts discarded annually in the United States.

The newly released statistics indicate that lung cancer is declining more than three times faster in California than in the rest of the nation, and that smoking rates statewide are inversely related to population density. For example, on average, people who live in rural California counties smoke at a higher rate (15.9 percent) than those who live in urban areas (10.9 percent).

San Luis Obispo Tobacco Control Program manager Kathleen Karle is confident that the local rate will continue to decrease as long as efforts are made to prevent children from starting to smoke.

“Unfortunately, those who smoke now will either die or quit,” — bringing down the rate, she said.

Any connection between the state’s ad campaigns and decreased smoking rates cannot be independently verified, and anti-smoking efforts in individual counties and cities also play a role in preventing smoking and helping smokers quit.

San Luis Obispo became the first city in the nation to ban indoor smoking in public places 20 years ago. In May, a new law took effect that bans smoking in nearly all public places in San Luis Obispo.

Statewide, tobacco control efforts, such as the new commercials, are funded through 1998 legislation that created a 25-cent tax on each pack of cigarettes sold. From the same tax, San Luis Obispo County receives approximately $150,000 each year for smoking prevention.

The county’s smoking prevention objectives for the next three years are:

Prevent people younger than age 18 from starting to smoke by carrying out tobacco stings on local retailers.

Protect children from second-hand smoke by convincing apartment owners to ban smoking in their complexes.

Forge partnerships with local business and other organizations that can advocate for prevention efforts.

Educators also visit preschool classes to perform puppet shows about the dangers of smoking.

Besides Karle, the local tobacco control program employs one administrator and three health educators. A past smoker herself, Karle believes in the importance of quitting smoking.

“The easy smokers have all quit already,” she said. But to the truly addicted she has a message: “You can do it. You just have to keep trying.”