Although smoking rates plunge, here’s why the news is still dismal

Cigarette+butts+in+ash+trayAs I’ve just written in my monthly Better Health Care newsletter, smoking is a pernicious addiction with startling persistence. But at least, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported, this nasty habit has fallen to its lowest rate in generations, with the agency, sadly, pinpointing the populations still puffing away and suffering for it.

As the Washington Post summarized the latest agency data: “Among the 17 percent of adults who still smoke … People in the Midwest …[do so] more on average than Americans elsewhere in the country. People on Medicaid are more than twice as likely to smoke as those on Medicare. Adults with a GED certificate smoke at eight times the rate of those with graduate degrees. Asians smoke less than other ethnic groups. Men smoke more than women, but not by much.”

Because we know that smoking is the No. 1 cause of preventable cancers (not to mention heart attack and other killers), and cancer is a costly and difficult disease, the information that poor, sick, disabled, and less educated Americans still are heavy tobacco users is disheartening and frustrating. The very week that the CDC released its latest smoking information, USA Today posted its report on how dismally the rural poor fare with cancer and in getting needed care for a disease that has become, for many others, a chronic and not a fatal condition.

The Obama Administration, meantime, has just announced an anti-smoking “stick” targeted at getting the poor to quit but infuriating many of them in the process. The administration, through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has proposed a ban on smoking in public housing nationwide. The ban would hit projects in big cities hard, will be a challenge to enforce, and, residents are complaining about Big Brother interference in their lives in the private confines of what they call home.

But the Times cites a CDC study estimating that “a nationwide smoke-free public housing policy would result in annual cost savings of about $153 million, including $94 million in health care, $43 million in reduced costs for painting and cleaning smoke-damaged units, and $16 million in averted fire losses.” Not to mention, if the smoking ban prods some residents to quit, lives saved.

As I discussed in the newsletter, lifestyle changes, especially like quitting smoking, can be significant in preventing cancer.

The Los Angeles Times, in detailing a decades-long effort to maintain an invaluable cancer registry cataloging 1.7 million cases in Southern California, offers further insight into this issue and the difficulty public health officials confront in tackling this disease. The paper, for example, says that registry data revealed the need for women of Japanese descent to reconsider diet and exercise in preventing cancer. When Japanese women first immigrate to the United States, they had eaten low-fat, plant-based diets, had babies earlier in their lives, and got lots of exercise, mostly through farming. But soon they were assimilated, eating Western diets, delaying childbirth, and more sedentary than their before. Their breast cancer rates soared to the highs experienced by longtime white female U.S. residents.

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