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Office of Governor Gary Locke
Contact:  Governor's Communications Office, 360-902-4136
Alt Contact:  Renee Guillierie, Department of Health, 360-236-4079, or Mark Funk, WATCH, 206-682-5066

State's tobacco use rises; Health secretary calls on Legislature to fund tobacco prevention

OLYMPIA —Tobacco use is increasing in Washington, according to a report from the Washington Department of Health. From 1990 to 1998, smoking rose 38 percent among high school seniors and nearly doubled among sixth graders. Adult smoking rose in 1996 and 1997, ending a downward trend dating back to the late 1980s.

"The numbers are very disturbing, especially for children," said secretary of the Department of Health Mary Selecky. "It's little comfort that Washington's rates are still below the national average."

The latest figures on tobacco use, health costs and groups at greatest risk of becoming addicted to tobacco were released today in "Tobacco and Health in Washington State," a report by the Washington Department of Health. The report is based on the department's death and birth records, surveys of tobacco use by youth and adults, and additional information from other state and federal agencies.

Among other things, it shows that more than 8,000 Washington residents died from smoking-related illnesses in 1997 -- almost 20 percent of the total deaths that year.

"This report is full of reasons for the state legislature to fund a state tobacco prevention program," Selecky said. "We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to prevent children from becoming the death statistics of the future. If we don't use some of the tobacco settlement dollars to help our children, thousands of them will die premature, painful deaths."

The report concludes that Washington will not reach most of the goals set for reducing tobacco use by the year 2000, if current trends continue. Selecky said the main reason is lack of funding for a sustained, comprehensive tobacco prevention and control program. "Other states are showing results when they invest in tobacco prevention."

Smoking rates and deaths from lung cancer vary around the state, as shown in the report. Counties with the highest rate of adult smoking from 1993 to 1997 were Grays Harbor, Lewis and Pacific counties. These counties also had some of the highest rates of maternal smoking, tobacco sales to minors and lung cancer deaths. King County had one of the lowest adult smoking rates in the state, and also has some of the lowest rates for maternal smoking, tobacco sales to minors and lung cancer deaths.

Other findings include:

- Young people who smoke are more likely to use other drugs, have friends who smoke, do poorly in school and have poor social skills.

- Half of high school students who smoke buy cigarettes at stores, despite laws preventing selling tobacco to minors. Adults are another major source of cigarettes for high school and middle school children.

- Among adults, smoking is highest in the following groups: ages 18 to 24, men, American Indians and Alaska Natives, persons who earn less than $25,000 per year, and people who didn't finish high school.

- Smoking among pregnant women is declining, from 17.9 percent in 1993 to 14.6 percent in 1997. However, 25 percent of women under age 20 reported smoking during pregnancy in 1997.

- Use of smokeless tobacco is also a problem. In 1998, 19 percent of senior high school boys and six percent of girls reported using smokeless tobacco in the past 30 days.

- Smoking-related illnesses cost $1.3 billion in 1993, almost 12 percent of the total medical expenditures that year.

Gov. Gary Locke and Attorney General Christine Gregoire have proposed using a portion of the state's tobacco settlement to create the Tobacco Prevention and Control Fund. The fund would provide revenue for anti-smoking and prevention programs statewide.

"I want this generation of smokers to be our last, but we can't just wish for it to happen -- we have to make it happen," Locke said. "We can do this by investing a portion of the tobacco settlement money in efforts that will protect children and target our state's unique needs."

If the Legislature approves the proposal, the Health Department plans to work with an advisory board of public health and tobacco prevention advocates on a comprehensive tobacco prevention and control program based on the recommendations of the Attorney General's Tobacco Task Force. The task force recommended school and community programs, cessation programs, increased efforts to reduce youth access to tobacco, a public awareness campaign, and additional research on how to prevent tobacco use.

"To be successful, we need to combine statewide activities, such as research, with local implementation -- local organizations working with high-risk groups in their communities. The information in this report will help set priorities and target prevention programs and research," Selecky said.

For the last eight years, Washington has received about $2.5 million a year in federal and state funds, which has been sent to local organizations to reduce tobacco sales to youth and prevent young people from starting smoking. In contrast, the tobacco industry spends about $120 million to market tobacco each year in Washington alone.

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