Author: Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times

The percentage of California adults who smoke has continued to drop more than the national average, according to new data released Monday by state health officials. Still, deep disparities exist depending on gender, education, income, ethnicity and region.

Overall, Californians remain significantly less likely to smoke than people in the rest of the country, with 13.1% of adults surveyed statewide saying they smoked last year compared with 21% of adults nationwide.

The rate was even lower in several Southern California counties, including Los Angeles (10.4%), Orange (10.9%), Ventura (11.8%), Riverside and San Bernardino (each12.7%), according to a 2008 telephone survey.

“We have saved billions of dollars in healthcare costs that have been averted,” Kimberly Belshé, the state’s secretary of Health and Human Services, said Monday at a news conference near downtown Los Angeles to release the figures and display the state’s latest anti- smoking advertisements.

Still, she said, “these prevalence rates also tell us we have more work to be done.”

As of last year, California had seen a 38% decrease in smokers since 1990, when public health officials created the California Tobacco Control Program, funded by Proposition 99. The smoking rate is expected to decrease to 12.6% this year, close to the national goal of 12% by 2020. Only Utah reports a lower rate of smokers.

The downward trend in California is moving faster than the nation’s, which has seen a smaller decrease in the smoking rate, down to 21% from 26% in 1990, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But rates within the state vary, in some cases widely. Many rural counties had rates of 17% or higher, including Lake (31.6%), Tehama (22.8%), Tuolomne (21.9%) and Humboldt (17.7%). Northern and eastern parts of the state have seenthe least decline in smoking since 1990.

Men still smoke at higher rates than women, 14.9% compared to 8.4% as of 2008.

College graduates smoked at less than half the rate of those without college degrees, about 6%. Among households with an income of $150,000 or more, about 8% smoked, while about 20% living in households earning less than $20,000 smoked as of 2008.

About 12.7% of whites smoked as of 2008, compared to 14.2% of African Americans, 10.2% of Latinos and 8.1% of Asians as of 2008.

Asian and Latino men smoked at nearly three times the rate of female counterparts. Among women, African Americans had the highest smoking rate (12.1%), followed by whites (10.8%), Latinos (5.3%) and Asians (3.8%).

“There are just unacceptable disparities across racial groups in the prevalence of smoking,” said Dr. Mark Horton, the state’s public health director. “We think we can really target some of those disparities as we move forward.”

Belshé said public health officials also plan to work with counterparts in local communities to better understand what prevents certain ethnic groups from smoking, particularly Latinos.

Two of the four state-sponsored ads unveiled Monday featured Debi Austin, 60, a former smoker and emphysema survivor from Canoga Park. Austin, who spoke Monday, rose to fame in the 1990s after a state anti-smoking ad showed her smoking through the laryngectomy hole in her throat.

Austin said she hopes people will see her and think twice about lighting up, especially young people.

“I am the worst case scenario that your mother told you about,” Austin said. “I am the walking dead, the cast-off of the tobacco industry that they can’t fix, they can’t heal.”

In addition to those ads, which will begin airing next month, state officials plan to release ads next spring in Spanish, Korean, Mandarin and Vietnamese.

Some ads will emphasize the environmental effect of smoking. Cigarette butts are not biodegradable and account for 34% of litter collected statewide, polluting beaches, clogging storm drains and igniting wildfires, according to officials.

“We want everyone who smokes to rethink their practice of flicking it out the window and onto the ground,” Horton said. “It’s bad for them and bad for the environment.”

Horton said he was hopeful that Californians will kick the habit in the New Year. According to the latest survey, 60% of those smoking statewide said they have tried to quit during the last year, including 76% of smokers age 18 to 24.