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Originally published Wednesday, June 15, 2011 at 10:46 AM

Number of adult smokers in state creeps upward

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.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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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 U.S. 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 sixth.

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 sixth and seventh, respectively.

Another reason for the increase in smokers in Washington may be attributed to funding cuts to the state Tobacco Prevention and Control Program, which is aimed at reducing tobacco-related disease and death, state officials say.

In the past two years, the prevention program has seen major cuts — almost 60 percent of its funding — with even deeper cuts looming.

Gov. Chris Gregoire on Wednesday signed a $32 billion state budget 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 in 2000, is one part of the prevention program 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 prevention program has been operating on a budget of $12.5 million, down from $29 million 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," Church said, referring to the difficulty his colleagues have faced in combating 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 also could 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 seventh last year, and Oregon, which found itself in 26th place, compared with 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 fourth place, its rate of smokers dropping from 15.1 percent to 13.5 percent.

Roberto Daza: 206-464-3195 or rdaza@seattletimes.com

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