Washington State smoking rates have hit a new low, but you wouldn't know it by looking at the state's low-income population. Seventeen percent of Washington State's general population regularly smoke tobacco products, but 31 percent of those with annual incomes below $25,000 and 29 percent of those with a high school diploma or less light up regularly, according to a study released earlier this month by the Washington State Department of Health. And the gap is growing. Since 2000, smoking rates among all Washington residents have dropped over 5 percent, smoking rates among less-educated and lower-income Washington residents remain unchanged.
"Low-income smokers try to quit as frequently as others, but have a lower rate of success," says Mary Selecky, Washington State Secretary of Health. "Perhaps it is because they're under more pressure, including economic pressure, or have less access to cessation support systems."
Smoking rates also differ along lines of ethnicity and sexuality. African-American and American-Indian/Alaskan Native individuals, as well as lesbians, gays and bisexuals, all smoke at significantly higher rates than ethnic whites.
According to Selecky, advertising by tobacco companies contributes to the dynamic. "Tobacco companies have been busy marketing to minority and LGBT communities, as well as to the low-income population. They go places where they can get in through a crack in the door. They market to those who have vulnerability."
Selecky notes that the state plans to target low-income communities in cessation efforts through several mediums, including a partnership with the Head Start program to include tobacco education programs in parent education programs, funding cessation services for low-income women who are pregnant, and expanding free access to nicotine replacement drugs.
Locally, Public Health Seattle-King County has plans to help low-income smokers who are trying to quit, by contracting with non-profits who operate inside high-risk tobacco communities, according to Scott Neal, Interim Tobacco Prevention Manager. "The socioeconomic gap in smoking rates is something we're working hard to remedy," Neal says. "We take studies like these as indicators of where to move next."