Washington, a state that has long boasted one of the lowest smoking rates in the nation, has taken a sizable drop from its third-place ranking, tying with Maryland this year for 11th place.
Currently, 15.2 percent of adults in the state smoke, up from 14.9 percent last year, according to numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Washington has continually ranked among the states with the lowest rate for smokers, last year behind Utah and California, the first- and second-ranked states since a state-based surveillance system about risk factors for chronic diseases began collecting data and comparing states in 1995. That year, Washington ranked 6th.
State officials attributed the shift in ranking to several factors, including the passage of smoke-free laws in states that in previous years had none.
In 2006, New Jersey and Hawaii (among other states) enacted laws that prohibited smoking in workplaces, restaurants and bars. Since then, both states have seen a noticeable decrease in the number of smoking adults. This year they ranked 6th and 7th, respectively.
Another reason for the increase in smokers in Washington may be attributed to funding cuts to the state Tobacco Prevention and Control Program, aimed at reducing tobacco-related disease and death, state officials say.
In the past two years, the tobacco prevention program has seen major cuts. with even deeper cuts looming. Gov. Chris Gregoire was to sign a $32 billion state budget on Wednesday that included more than $4 billion in cuts to higher education, social services and health care. The new budget, which addresses a $5.1 billion revenue gap, will take effect July 1.
“Lawmakers had a lot of difficult decisions to make,” said Tim Church, communications director for the state Department of Health.
The Tobacco Quit Line, a phone line started by the prevention program in 2000, is one of the programs facing erasure. Since its inception, the line has taken calls from more than 150,000 people, almost all of them smokers trying to kick their habit.
The tobacco prevention program has been operating on a budget of $15 million, down from the $28 million it enjoyed in previous years. Already eliminated have been public awareness campaigns aimed at teenagers and young adults, including the popular “No Stank You” television commercials that depicted the grisly effects of smoking.
“The tobacco industry spends countless millions,” said Church, referring to the difficulty his colleagues have faced countering slick advertising and products such as flavored cigarettes that appeal to young people. “It’s tough to counter that.”
The drop in the state’s ranking could also be a case of simple arithmetic, Church said.
“There are 10 to 15 states that always jump around,” he said, noting that as little as a fraction of a percentage point in the smoking rate can dramatically change a state’s national standing. “They’re always jockeying around in position.”
Some of the more notable examples include Rhode Island, which fell to 19th place from 7th last year, and Oregon, which found itself in 26th place, compared to last year’s ranking of 10th.
On the other hand, Arizona, which enacted a smoke-free law in 2007, made a leap this year from 12th to 4th place, its rate of smokers dropping from 15.1 percent to 13.5 percent.