SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's youth smoking rate has dropped more than 50 percent since 1999, a new state Department of Health report shows.
Health officials said the 5.9 percent rate is the lowest recorded level. Smoking rates have been cut in half in nearly all local health districts in the state over the past 13 years, according to the annual Tobacco Prevention and Control in Utah report, issued last week.
The report also shows that some 12,000 Utahns — adults, teens and pregnant women — used state-sponsored cessation programs in fiscal year 2012.
The state's adult smoking rate, 11.3 percent, is the lowest in nation.
"But our work is far from finished as there are still 220,000 adult smokers in Utah and four out of five of them want to quit. That's where we come in," said Amy Oliver, marketing manager of the state's Tobacco Prevention and Control Program.
State health officials attribute the drop in youth smoking rates to greater awareness about the health risks of smoking, a proliferation of cessation support services statewide as well as increases in the cost of cigarettes — much of it due to significant increases in state and federal taxes.
As smoking rates have dropped, state and local health officials have shifted their attention to the tobacco industry's push to market to youth new products such as dissolvable tobacco, hookahs and electronic cigarettes.
"Our data show the marketing to these groups is working," said Dr. David Patton, executive director of the Utah Department of Health. "We are seeing higher usage rates of some of these products, especially among youth, and high levels of dual use with cigarettes."
The report also showed that awareness of cessation programs and their use are on the upswing among adult smokers.
Polls conducted for the health department showed 88 percent of adult smokers were aware of the Utah Tobacco Quit Line. Meanwhile, 92 percent knew about UtahQuitNet.com.
Ninety percent of adult smokers take up the habit before age 18, which suggests an ongoing need for prevention efforts, Oliver said. Targeted youth education efforts are under way in 21 school districts, which serve 220,000 students.
Teens tell health officials that they try smoking because of "the cool factor," she said. In some communities in rural Utah, teens report that they smoke and use smokeless products such as chewing tobacco or dissolvable tobacco products because of sheer boredom.
The good news is, once nonsmoking youth hit their 20s, they are far less likely to succumb to the "cool factor," Oliver said.
The report, available at www.tobaccofreeutah.org, says tobacco use costs the Utah economy about $663 million a year in smoking-related medical expenses and lost productivity.
It's an ongoing battle to discourage tobacco use by children and help smokers give up the habit when Big Tobacco companies continually outspend the state's prevention and cessation efforts, Oliver said.
But the trends are encouraging, so much so that state and local authorities look forward to a time when they have worked their way out of job.
"I want someday not to have a job and know that Utah is completely smoke-free. That's the vision for the future," Oliver said.
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