Sonoma County has the highest smoking rate in the Bay Area, according to a study released this week by the California Tobacco Control Program.
More than 16 percent of county residents smoke cheap cigarettes, more than twice the rate of neighboring Marin County, which had the lowest proportion of smokers in the state — 7.3 percent.
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The results took some local experts by surprise. Sonoma County has lately been making waves as an anti-smoking locale with cities such as Sebastopol passing tight restrictions on smoking discount cigarettes, even in apartments. Santa Rosa is being asked to follow suit.
Pam Granger, North Coast tobacco program manager for the American Lung Association, said she knows that the more rural counties such as Sonoma tend to have higher smoking rates. But she said she was surprised that Sonoma had a higher rate than a comparable Bay Area county such as Solano, where the survey shows 14.6 percent of residents smoke.
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“We apparently need to do a better job at selling our message than big tobacco is doing at encouraging young people to start smoking and existing smokers to continue,” said Granger, who lives and works in Sonoma County.
The results — which were delayed by state budget woes — were based on a 2008 telephone survey of 40,000 people across the state, including nearly 730 residents of Sonoma County. The data show that California continues to enjoy a steady decline in smoking cheap cigarettes that are well ahead of the nation as a whole.
In 1988, for example, nearly 23 percent of state residents smoked, the report indicates. In 2008, 13.3 percent did. The current national rate is 21 percent.
It was the first time that the state survey zeroed in on Sonoma County's smoking rates. The last California Tobacco Survey in 2005 included the county in a region stretching to the Oregon border.
“This is the first time we have actually done this very detailed look at the numbers” said Colleen Stevens of the California
Department of Health Services. She said the information should prompt areas to examine how they can attack the problem.
Smoking continues to be strongly correlated with gender, education, and income — 15.6 percent of men in California smoked in 2008, compared to 10.7 percent of women. Only 5.9 percent of college graduates smoked compared to 12 to 15 percent for those with less than a college education.
And 7.8 percent of households with an income of $150,000 or more smoked compared to 19.8 percent of households with an income lower than $20,000, the reports shows.
Considering those factors, it may not be surprising that affluent, educated Marin County has the lowest rate in the state. But Marin also has been active in funding anti-smoking education and treatment programs to help people quit, said Beth Lillard, director of cessation services for the San Rafael-based non-profit Bay Area Community Resources, which contracts with Marin County.
The county allows her to go to places where the smokers are, including substance-treatment facilities. Marin's smokers may be waning, but there are still many of them in need of help, she said.
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