Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Calif's anti-smoking campaign proves successful

The percentage of Americans who smoke continues to decline. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control reveals around one out of five adults was a regular smoker last year. California's smoki

The percentage of Americans who smoke continues to decline. A new report from the Centers for Disease Control reveals around one out of five adults was a regular smoker last year.

California's smoking rate is even lower than the national average. Public health advocates credit the state's anti-tobacco programs. But advocates caution the state needs to beef up it's spending to counteract aggressive marketing tactics by tobacco companies. KPBS Health Reporter Kenny Goldberg has the story.

California's public health campaign against smoking began in earnest in the late eighties with the passage of Prop 99. The measure raised cigarette taxes by $0.25 a pack. The money was earmarked for tobacco-related research and programs to reduce smoking, including anti-tobacco billboards and print ads.


Dr. Stanton Glantz directs the Center for Tobacco Control Research at UC San Francisco. He says the state's anti-smoking programs have been an enormous success.

Glantz: "Not only have hundreds of thousands of people quit smoking and seen their lives improve, but we've actually estimated that there've probably been by now 100,000 heart attacks that didn't happen, probably 20,000 people who didn't get lung cancer.

California has seen its smoking rate decline dramatically since the passage of Prop 99. Today, less than 15 percent of adults in the state smoke. That's the second-lowest rate in the country, behind the state of Utah.

Dr. John Pierce heads up the Cancer Prevention and Control Program at UCSD. He says there are some other positive trends.

Pierce: "The particular good news is that the big declines in California are coming from young people starting to smoke. And that means that we're going to be pulling away from the rest of the country in the future as it goes forward."


California's teen smoking rate stands at 13.2 percent, well below the national average. That's of concern to tobacco companies, who need new customers to pick up the habit.

Under the 1998 Master Settlement Agreement, cigarette makers can no longer legally target children. So Stanton Glantz says they've been stepping up their efforts directed at 18 to 24 year olds.

Glantz: "And so the tobacco companies are sponsoring literally thousands of events here in California at bars with bands, giveaways, other kinds of events. And to get in all you have to do is let them scan your drivers license, which puts you instantly into a database where they can track you for the rest of your life."

David Howard is a spokesman for R.J. Reynolds, the nation's second largest tobacco company. Howard says all of their marketing is designed for adult smokers of legal age.

Howard: "We do have event marketing where we host events in age-restricted venues like bars and nightclubs, and that gives us the ability to have one-on-one interaction with adult smokers in environments where they are comfortable. And also they are age-restricted environments, so obviously that goes to the responsibility factor, that we are going to great measures to ensure that we are only communicating with adults who choose to smoke."

The tobacco industry has been stepping up its efforts. Since 1998, its advertising budget has more than doubled. Cigarette makers spend more than $15 billion a year marketing their products to Americans. In contrast, California only spends around $80 million annually on tobacco control.

A coalition of public health groups wants to change that. The coalition has launched a campaign to place $1.50 hike in the state's cigarette tax on next fall's ballot. A portion of the new tax revenues would go to bolster tobacco prevention programs.

Stanton Glantz says to combat what the industry spends on advertising, California needs to give its tobacco control effort a boost.

Glantz: "What we need to do now is reestablish the purchasing power of the program, so that we can get it back to the same level of volume and effectiveness that it had in the beginning. And I think if we could do that, we could essentially eliminate tobacco use as a major public health problem in California over three or four years.

Despite the gains in reducing the smoking rate, nearly four million Californians still haven't kicked the habit. Smoking remains the leading cause of death in the state.

Kenny Goldberg, KPBS News.