The 5 percent drop in the U.S. smoking rate among both men and women from 1996 to 2012 has been unevenly distributed geographically, according to the latest report by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
"Declining rates have been driven by a small group of counties that account for a large share of the population," explained Rhonda Stewart, communications manager for the institute. She said the results support previous studies that have shown that cigarette smoking rates are inversely related to income and educational levels.
The national averages are down to 22.2 percent for men and 17.9 percent for women. Virginia falls in the middle of the pack for both men, at 21.4 percent, and women, 17.7 percent. Peninsula-area localities straddle the state averages.
Cigarette smoking is now blamed for a host of diseases, including heart and respiratory problems, cancers, as well as slower healing. It is linked to 465,000 U.S. deaths annually. The highest smoking rates persist in Kentucky, South Dakota and Alaska with the lowest rates in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, according to the new report. In virtually every county nationwide, more men than women smoke.
The intitute's report also showed significant differences within states. Three of the 10 counties with the lowest cigarette use by men nationally are in Northern Virginia — Falls Church has the lowest rate at 9.9 percent, Arlington was fifth at 11.8 percent and Loudon County 10th at 13.1 percent. But the state also recorded the largest gap between male smoking rates — more than a third of the men in Sussex County smoke compared to fewer than one in 10 in Falls Church.
Falls Church also recorded a 4.5 percent drop in smokers, the greatest decline noted, with Arlington and Loudon County not far behind.
In general, the study showed that the wealthier the community, the greater the reduction in smoking, particularly over the past decade. "What we are seeing with gaps in smoking rates is very similar to what we have seen with gaps in life expectancy between counties," said Dr. Ali Mokdad, one of the study's authors.
On and near the Peninsula in 2012, the localities with the highest smoking rates among men were Charles City (29 percent), Hampton (27.4 percent), Newport News (26.7 percent), Gloucester (24.7 percent), Isle of Wight (23.25 percent), and Mathews (22.9 percent). Those with rates below the state average of 21.4 percent were Poquoson (21.05 percent), James City County (19.32 percent), and Williamsburg (18.84 percent). The localities with the steepest rate reductions were Isle of Wight (down 7.5 percent) and Mathews (down 6.3 percent), while Hampton's rate was alone in showing no significant decrease.
Among women, the lowest 2012 rate for cigarette smokers was in Williamsburg (12.7) and the highest in Charles City (23.2), the only locality to record an increase, up by almost 3 percent.
"We know that there is a very strong relationship between poverty and people's health. We need to understand better how to break that connection," said lead author Laura Dwyer-Lindgren.
To read the full study, go to http://www.healthmetricsandevaluation.org and look under Research Studies.
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