Answer to Map #44

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Answer: This week’s map was a choropleth depicting the percentages of people in each U.S. state who smoke tobacco.

The data for this map came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On this map, the darkest shade of green indicates states with smoking rates above 25%. The second darkest shade indicates states with smoking rates between 22.5% and 25%. Each successively lighter shade corresponds to a 2.5% decrease in smoking rates.

The state with by far the lowest percentage of smokers is Utah (9.1%). This low rate has much to do with Utah’s large population of Mormons, who subscribe to a religion that frowns on smoking (as well as drinking). The state with the second lowest percentage of smokers is California (11.7%). California was the first state to impose a tax on cigarettes and the first state to ban smoking in indoor public places. The Office on Smoking and Health within the Centers for Disease Control has established an official target to bring the adult smoking rate in the United States below 12% by 2020, but so far only Utah and California have reached that goal.

The states with the highest smoking rates are Kentucky (25.9%) and West Virginia (25.7%). Kentucky is an interesting state because it is the state that produces the second most tobacco, after North Carolina. Several decades ago, one would have expected North Carolina to have a much higher smoking rate, but it has fallen more rapidly than has that of Kentucky. One reason for this disparity is that North Carolina now has a much wealthier and more educated population than does Kentucky. Today, only about 19% of North Carolinians smoke, even though their state is the country’s largest grower of tobacco.

In general, smoking rates have fallen all over the country since the mid-twentieth century. Anti-smoking campaigns in schools, the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarette packages, the banning of cigarette advertisements on television, the imposition of higher cigarette taxes, and more widespread understanding of the dangers of smoking are just some of the reasons for the overall decrease.

But just because smoking rates as a whole have fallen doesn’t mean they have fallen for all demographic groups in the same way. While the overall smoking rate now hovers a bit above 15%, the smoking rate for people with no education beyond high school is around 40%. And lung cancer rates are now 18-20% more common in rural areas than in urban areas. A recent headline in the Washington Post called this disparity “America’s new tobacco crisis,” succinctly summing up the problem by noting, “the rich stopped smoking, the poor didn’t.” Researchers have noted that tobacco companies have shifted to target much of their advertising at people of lower socioeconomic status, further exacerbating this trend.

And even Utah’s minimal smoking rate seems high in comparison to some other developed countries: new statistics put the adult smoking rate in Sweden at only 5%.

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