California Strikes Gold with Lowest-Ever Smoking Rate

July 18, 2011


It's not just the sunny climate that gives the Golden State its healthy glow:  The rate of smoking among California adults has just hit a record low, dropping to 11.9 percent.

California now joins Utah as one of two states in the nation to achieve the federal Healthy People 2020 target of reducing the prevalence of adult smoking to 12 percent.  Nationally, the adult smoking rate is 20.6 percent, a level that's remained essentially unchanged since 2004.

California has achieved extraordinary success in reducing smoking since it launched a comprehensive Tobacco Control Program with voter approval of a 25-cent per pack cigarette tax. The 1988 referendum hiking the tax required that 20 percent of the new revenues from it would be earmarked for health education against tobacco use. The state mounted aggressive media campaigns to counter industry marketing and funded local programs to help smokers quit and prevent kids from starting.

Chart: Smoking prevalence among California adults, 1984-2010

Chart: Smoking prevalence among California adults, 1984-2010
Source: Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS) 1984-2010. The data are weighed to the 2000 California population. California Department of Public Health, California Tobacco Control Program, April 2011.

In 1995, California became the first state in the nation to ban smoking at indoor work sites and restaurants. It extended the smoke-free policy to bars in 1998.

All of these steps helped to change the social norms about tobacco use, and reduced both adult and youth smoking dramatically.

Unfortunately, the state has not kept up its groundbreaking pace. Its current cigarette tax of 87 cents is lower than the national average of $1.46 per pack, and California is only spending about $75 million annually on tobacco prevention — just 17 percent of the level recommended by the Centers  for Disease Control and Prevention. It's got to do better.

Still, California has set another trend and reached an historic mark on the path toward freedom from the disease and death caused by tobacco use.  Other states should copy its healthy style.