About one in every 10 Contra Costa and Alameda county residents smokes, among the lowest rates in the state, according to the county-by-county report released Monday, the most detailed ever.
Contra Costa tied with San Mateo County for the sixth lowest in the state -- 9.6 percent -- and Alameda ranked eighth at 10 percent, according to the state Department of Health study examining 2008 data. The statewide rate is the lowest ever at 13.1 percent, with nearly 4 million Californians smoking.
About 21 percent of Americans smoke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"The really good news is California and Contra Costa have made huge successes and gains in reducing smoking rates," said Denice Dennis, Contra Costa tobacco prevention project manager. "We've had lots of gains through the adoption of smoking prevention policies."
Contra Costa County and its cities have passed strict secondhand smoke policies and cracked down on the illegal sales of tobacco to minors, she said. Still, the most recent Healthy Kids survey found that 11th-graders in Contra Costa self-reported a smoking rate of 15 percent.
While happy with the numbers, Alameda County's tobacco control program director has some reservations about the phone survey, which called landlines only.
"The younger populations are more mobile and may have been unintentionally excluded from the survey," Paul Cummings said. He also wished the survey had county-by-county demographic data.
Previously, East Bay advocates have relied on less thorough state surveys of smoking rate estimates. The last report, in 2005, found Contra Costa with a 12.4 percent smoking rate and Alameda County at 11 percent.
The low East Bay rates are not surprising, said California's public health director.
"Smoking prevalence tends to be higher in rural counties than urban counties," Dr. Mark Horton said.
The state hopes to investigate why rural counties average 15.9 percent versus 10.9 percent in urban counties, he said.
Urban would-be and active smokers are saturated with social behavior strategies that, like peer pressure, make smoking unattractive, Cummings said.
"In rural areas, if you're addicted to smoking, you're not getting those daily messages," he said.
Almost as encouraging as the lower state smoking rate, second only to Utah, Horton said, was the increase in attempts to quit. In 2009, 60 percent of smokers made a recent quit attempt, and 76 percent of young adults (those ages 18 to 24) tried to stop, according to the report.
The most effective strategy to increase smoking cessation is further taxing tobacco, Cummings said.
"If the tobacco tax increased by a significant amount, it would make a lot of people question why they should continue smoking and try harder to quit," he said.
California charges 87 cents per pack, the country's 30th highest tax.
The report also provided statewide smoking demographics.
Although declining, the smoking rate among blacks in 2008 was above the state average at 14.2 percent, the highest age group being the 20 percent of 45- to 65-year-olds who smoke.
Cummings hopes the East Bay can lobby the Federal Drug Administration to ban menthol cigarettes, which target young smokers and black neighborhoods.
"It masks the harsh taste and it's easier for younger people to get addicted," he said. "It's a social justice issue."
The FDA recently banned flavored cigarettes.
Some other report findings:
Contact Matthias Gafni at 925-952-5026.
To read the full state department of health report on tobacco use behaviors by rural/urban areas, ethnicity and environment, go to www.contracostatimes.com.
lowest smoking rates
Source: State Department of Health