Reversing a long-term trend, smoking among adults in California increased significantly during the last six months of 1995, the state Department of Health Services said Tuesday.
The rise in smoking among adults follows at least five years of steady decline in the number of smokers and comes on the heels of studies showing a rise in smoking among teenagers.
The development gives new ammunition to critics of Gov. Pete Wilson and the Legislature who link the rise in smoking to the diversion of money from the state’s anti-smoking campaign.
“It’s a matter of concern, because we’ve had a long-term downward trend in the prevalence of smoking in California,” said Dr. Lester Breslow, a UCLA professor and former state health director who sits on a panel that follows smoking trends.
The most recent figures were released to Breslow and other members of the Tobacco Education Research Oversight Committee on Monday and were confirmed by the state Department of Health Services on Tuesday.
The survey shows that during the second half of 1995, 17.9% of Californians over 18 smoked, compared to an all-time low of 15.5% during the first six months of 1995.
Wilson administration officials pointed out that the number for the full 12 months of 1995 was still 16.7%, lower than the 17.3% of the adult population who smoked during 1994.
Colleen Stevens, chief of the state anti-smoking media campaign funded by tobacco-tax dollars, said: “We are still not sure if the last increase was a statistical bump or if it is a change in the trend.”
Breslow said that although it is possible the spike in smoking was due to a “statistical fluke,” the latest report appears to be part of a disturbing pattern signaling that the steep decline in smoking among Californians may have bottomed out.
As evidence, he pointed to a well-documented increase in smoking among teenagers and an increase in the number of packs of cigarettes purchased in California during the first three months of 1996.
State cigarette-tax collections show that 423 million packs of cigarettes were sold during the first quarter of 1996, compared to 409 packs during the same three months of 1995.
Breslow and others linked the reported increase in smoking to the diversion of tens of millions of dollars from special accounts for public education and advertising that were mandated by the anti-smoking initiative, Proposition 99.
The initiative passed in 1988, but was not fully implemented until 1990. It hiked the state cigarette tax to 25 cents a pack and mandated that 25% of the money raised go to health education programs, including anti-smoking ads and research on the effects of smoking. The rest of the money went to support health programs.
But in recent years, Wilson and the Legislature began diverting a significant amount of money from Proposition 99 education and research programs into ongoing health programs. Opponents have blocked the diversions in court, but the money in essence has been frozen in an escrow account until the suit is settled. The result has been that a significant amount of money for advertising campaigns has dried up.
“The [anti-smoking] campaign is continuing, but at a substantially reduced level,” Breslow said. “You have to consider that as a possible factor in the reversal of the trend.”
Mary Adams, a spokeswoman for the American Heart Assn., said the survey means “more heart attacks,” because studies have strongly suggested a link between smoking and heart attacks.
“I am really horrified,” she said. “Since Proposition 99, we have made tremendous strides toward a smoke-free society. Now I think these new figures reverse that trend.”
Another critic, Stanton Glantz, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco who has conducted extensive research on smoking and smokers’ habits, called the new figures “a dramatic and very troubling reversal of the progress we’ve been making under Proposition 99.”
Wilson recently announced that he was beefing up anti-smoking campaigns targeted at teens in response to surveys showing an increase in smoking among youth. He suggested emphasizing that smoking was for “adults only.”
But this fanned the controversy, with critics contending that the surest way to turn teens into smokers is to create the impression that smoking is for adults. They note that the campaign is similar to one suggested by the nation’s largest tobacco company, Philip Morris, in return for concessions from the Clinton administration.
The American Heart Assn. has run scathing full-page newspaper advertisements attacking Wilson for his “adults only” campaign and drawing similarities between the governor’s plan and the one proposed by Philip Morris.
Sean Walsh, Wilson’s press deputy, said the governor has consistently backed anti-smoking legislation and policies that ban smoking in offices and public buildings and that restrict vending machines to certain areas.
“We have the toughest laws in the nation, and Pete Wilson supported those laws,” Walsh said.