Smoking stats back county's strategy
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There seemed to be little surprise for local officials in Thursday's report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that smoking rates have leveled off for the past three years -- ending years of decline.
The CDC said about 20.8 percent of American adults are smokers, with 80 percent, or 36.3 million, of them smoking every day. That rate has been unchanged since 1984.
The county smoking rate was not available, but Health Director Dr. Bruce Dixon said he knows the problem of smoking and its effect on health remains a concern.
"We don't have really good numbers to say [how many county residents smoke], though we do look at high-risk groups, minorities, youth," he said, adding, "Sales to youth are off" but they still find ways to purchase.
"The marketing has not backed off ... I think we still have a disproportionate level of smoking among pregnant women and minority groups."
Why is there a plateau in what had been a steep decline in smoking, and what can be done about it?
"I think it's sort of characteristic," Dr. Dixon said. "You get the people most swayed by evidence to change their behavior. Then you have a group that doesn't think it applies to them, or they're recalcitrant and won't change.
"You've got to find new strategies to get them to consider changing. But I think it's typical. You're always going to have a residual group that isn't persuaded."
What strategies does he propose?
"We've always as a health agency proposed a smoking ban," he said. The county's ban is now on hold, waiting for progress in efforts to launch a statewide law.
By making smokers uncomfortable, Dr. Dixon said, "they are more apt to change their behavior."
That, combined with taxes on tobacco products, still might not be enough, he added.
"Some of the other things are going to take federal legislation. ... I'm not sure that raising taxes makes a big change. You just see people buy anyway and leave themselves less able to afford their needs.
"I would much rather be persuasive than coercive as a means of getting things done."
The county Health Department offers smoking cessation programs through Tobacco Free Allegheny and also funds other agencies to do that as well.
Dr. Dixon said enrollment in those classes has not been analyzed to see a long-term trend.
"I will say this ... during our brief time with a smoking ban ... we saw large numbers of people enrolled ..." he said. "Since then, those figures probably have dropped but I simply don't have the numbers to back that up."
Although he said a combination of efforts are needed to get the smoking rates to head downward again, Dr. Dixon said he thinks state law must step in:
"We have to continue to emphasize to the Legislature ... that it has to step up and get something in place."
An author of the county's ban on indoor smoking, County Council President Rich Fitzgerald said Friday he was disappointed with the CDC report. But he was hesitant to support an all-out smoking ban:
"It's still a free choice [society]," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "It's the secondhand smoke our legislation sought to deal with. ... Even though it's bad for your health, there are lots of things that are bad for your health and you don't necessarily ban them. But when you harm another person, that's when you've got to step in.
"I would want people not to smoke ... but I believe you do it through education and incentive as opposed to making it against the law."
First Published November 14, 2007 12:00 am