HEALTH & FITNESS - State smoking rate falls; Walla Walla County even lower

The rate is third-lowest in the union at 14.8 percent, a little less than one smoker for every seven adults.

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New survey results show Washington's adult smoking rate has dropped to a new low of 14.8 percent, according to the state Department of Health.

That's down from more than 15 percent from the previous year, giving Washington the third lowest smoking rate in the nation -- the state's best ranking since record keeping across all 50 states started in 1995.

Walla Walla County looks even better at a 10.8 percent smoking rate, said Erika Peterson with the state Department of Health.

As in the past, the newest survey showed people from low-income and lower-educational backgrounds continue to smoke at higher rates. Smokeless tobacco use, including products like chew, is also on the rise among people who already smoke.

Smokeless tobacco is a known cause of illnesses, including cancer of the mouth and pancreas, and increased use is a disturbing trend, said Tim Church, director of communication for the DOH. "The best we understand, it is the new laws in our state," he explained, referring to the law banning smoking from public places. "People can't smoke at work, so they are taking up the (smokeless tobacco) habit."

At the same time health officials are fighting exposure to second-hand smoke, tobacco companies are pushing smokeless tobacco products, Church said.

Traditionally the rates for people who use such forms of tobacco have been low, holding at one to three percent, he explained. The state has responded by putting out information so consumers can clearly know those are not safe alternatives to smoking cigarettes.

The newer numbers of smokers using oral tobacco products is worrisome to health officials. In the last decade, smokeless tobacco use has more than doubled among the population.

While chew -- which come in loose leaf, pressed plugs and twists -- is the predominate form of smokeless tobacco, other products are popping up, such as tobacco lollipops and dissolvable sticks, strips and orbs of tobacco, Church said. "Unfortunately, those are also more attractive to young people."

The state is also keeping a close eye on electronic cigarettes, which most often take the traditional shape they are named after. The battery-powered device provides inhaled doses of liquid nicotine concentrate via heated water vapor.

Although disconcerting to see in action -- "I do a double take" -- the "e-cigarettes" are not yet regulated by the Food and Drug Administration and his office is waiting to see what happens at a federal level, Church said.

Since the state started its "Tobacco Prevention and Control" program in 2000, the smoking rate in Washington state has declined by about a third. The drop translates to 105,000 people spared early tobacco-related deaths and $3 billion saved in future health care costs, health officials said.

"Our rise to a number three national ranking is good news for the health of people in Washington," said Washington Secretary of Health Mary Selecky. "I'm pleased with our continued improvement in smoking rates, yet we've still got work to do. We must be sure everyone in our state -- regardless of income and education level -- is included in these gains."

The Tobacco Quit Line (1-800-QUIT-NOW, 1-877-2NO-FUME) provides free help to people who are ready to quit -- including smokeless tobacco products like chew and dip. Quit coaches help callers identify triggers for tobacco use, cope with withdrawal symptoms and develop a personal plan to quit.

Callers receive a packet of quit materials by mail. More than 150,000 people in Washington have called the quit line for help since it opened for business in 2000.

The Department of Health tracks adult tobacco use through the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. These latest data come from telephone surveys conducted throughout 2009. More than 20,000 adults from around the state were contacted and asked questions about tobacco use and other health behaviors.

The state has made progress reducing tobacco use, but more work remains to be done, Church said. The tobacco industry spends more than $146 million each year here to market its products. About 45 kids start smoking each day and about 7,500 people in Washington state die every year from tobacco-related diseases.

More information about quitting tobacco is at www.Quitline.com.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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