West Virginia’s adult smoker ranks decline

CHARLESTON -The number of adult smokers in the state has declined over the past five years, according to a report released Tuesday by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Bureau for Public Health.

According to the DHHR’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey, the number of adults who smoke is down from 28.6 percent in 2011 to 24.8 percent in 2016.

Dr. Rahul Gupta, state health officer and commissioner of the DHHR’s Bureau for Public Health, said a drop in adult smokers is evidence that middle and high school students — who never smoked — are now moving into the adult population.

“This is a significant decline,” Gupta said. “It is the first time it has happened in the state going back to 1980. As young people have gone through high school and graduated to become young adults, they’re now entering the work force and other parts of life no longer smokers.”

Gupta said DHHR has seen smoking among high school students drop to 10 percent; for middle school students it has dropped to 4.5 percent.

“We’ve been focused on youth and youth smoking,” Gupta said. “That’s the time the tobacco industry focuses on these children. If you catch on early at a young age, you’re likely not to quit, and it’s a lifelong addiction.

“We have similarly focused our efforts on programs such as Raze to educate young people,” Gupta said. “For example, in high school students since 2000 we’ve seen a 140 percent increase in what we call the ‘never smokers.'”

However, Gupta acknowledged, “we still have a long way to go.”

Last February the West Virginia House of Delegates committee on health and human resources killed a bill that would have raised the age to buy cigarettes, tobacco and vaping products from 18 to 21.

Several states have raised the legal age to smoke and buy tobacco to 21.

Gupta said many occasional smokers become daily, lifelong smokers between the ages of 18 and 21, and said raising the legal age for tobacco products would keep many state residents from forming a permanent habit and be healthier.

West Virginia leads the nation in the percentage of residents who smoke and in the numbers of women who smoke while pregnant.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, smoking causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Smoking-related illness is the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, accounting for more than 480,000 deaths nationally and nearly 4,300 deaths in West Virginia.

Gupta said other factors in play to reduce the state’s adult smoking rate include clean indoor air regulations, cigarette tax increases and tobacco cessation quitline services.

“We’re changing the cultural norm where it becomes difficult for people to be in a restaurant and smoking, or at least suffering from second hand smoke in other public places,” Gupta said.

Bruce Adkins, director of the DHHR’s Office of Community Health Systems and Health Promotion, attributed the decline in part to comprehensive educational programs enacted in the state

“Sustained best practices do have even greater healthy gains and lead to compelling returns on investment,” Adkins said. “There is a likely correlation of this decrease being the first evidence we have that lower smoking rates among youth due to programs such as Raze are making an impact.”