America’s New Tobacco Crisis: The Rich Stopped Smoking, The Poor Didn’t

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Smoking is on the decline in the United States. In the 1960s, about 42 percent of American adults smoked; in 2015, the percentage had decreased significantly to about 15 percent were smokers. The reduction has saved millions of lives and led to a massive reduction in smoking-related cancer.

Public health campaigns emphasized education, highlighting the dangers of smoking to your lungs and the risks of developing cancers. The effects of secondhand smoke on others compelled smoking bans in restaurants, bars and public settings. Among high-income families, smoking use plummeted 62 percent in three and a half decades as campaigns and education efforts skyrocketed. In comparison, among low income families, there was only a 9 percent decrease. While the educated and wealthier Americans have left smoking behind for the most part, the poor and uneducated are still smoking.

While the nation’s smoking average is at historic lows, among the nation’s less-educated people, the smoking rate remains at 40 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rural residents are diagnosed with cancer at rates 18 to 20 percent above those of city dwellers.

The gap between classes is shifting how healthcare and anti-smoking organizations shape their campaigns and outreach – not to mention tobacco companies. Cigarette companies are focusing their marketing on lower socioeconomic communities to retain their customer base. Advocacy groups say that funding for smoking cessation is dropping off, possibly due to the increase in e-cigarette use across the country. While America’s upper and middle class may see smoking as a problem solved, it is still common practice among thousands across the country.

 “There’s this tendency now to blame the ones still smoking,” said Robin Koval, president of the Truth Initiative, a leading tobacco-control nonprofit group. “The attitude is: ‘You’re doing it to yourself. If you were just strong enough, you’d be able to quit.’”

In states like Utah, current smoking is about 9 percent of adults; in Kentucky, it’s almost 26 percent. States like West Virginia, Arkansas, Ohio, and Tennessee project similar high percentages of smoking. Tobacco companies are taking advantage of their marketing, specifically in poorer, rural and often Southern states, where smoking remains the highest.

The Truth Initiative called out tobacco companies in a campaign launched earlier this year; through a series of ads, the campaign addressed tobacco companies’ targeting of black and low-income neighborhoods, “It’s no coincidence. It’s profiling.”

CADCA’s Geographic Health Equity Alliance (GHEA) strives to identify the gaps in information among socioeconomic groups, provide leadership and expertise and promote health interventions. Their mission is to raise awareness about geographic health disparities related to tobacco and cancer to ensure that the issue of

smoking isn’t considered “solved” until widespread education and effective public health practices can be in place. 

Each year, an estimated 480,000 people die prematurely from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke.

Source: CADCA

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