BERLIN – Smoking is on the decline in Worcester County.
According to local health officials, the percentage of adults using tobacco products in Worcester County dropped from 23.7 percent in 2000 to 7.7 percent in 2012. The drop, which is outlined in a recent report from the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, mirrors statewide trends.
“I’m amazed,” said Marty Pusey, director of prevention services for the Worcester County Health Department. “Generally Eastern Shore counties tend to be higher in smoking rates. I’m pleased to see this but what we get one year doesn’t mean we’re going to get that the next year.”
Across Maryland, the rate of tobacco use dropped from 20.5 percent in 2000 to 16.2 percent in 2012. Here in Worcester County, Pusey says it’s hard to pinpoint a specific reason for the decrease. She believes the significant amount of funding the county received in 2000 — the year the Cigarette Restitution Fund was created — played a role, as did the passage of the Clean Indoor Air Act in 2007. The funding increase allowed the county to expand its smoking cessation programs, its enforcement programs and its educational programs.
The Clean Indoor Air Act put a stop to smoking in most public places.
“There was a change in the public’s perception of the acceptance of tobacco use,” Pusey said. “People felt less comfortable smoking.”
Although Worcester County’s adult smoking rates have fallen below the state’s, Pusey said health department officials were worried to learn that the number of teenagers lighting up in Worcester County exceeded the state average. High school tobacco use in Worcester County was measured at 20.4 percent. Statewide, that rate is 12.9 percent.
“We’re concerned,” Pusey said.
She said the number of minors smoking locally decreased in 2004 and 2007 but had started to rise again in recent years. She believes a more-than 60 percent funding cut in 2010 is to blame.
“I think that had a direct impact on smoking rates among youth,” she said. “When you take the spotlight away from an issue, you’ll see a reversal of a trend oftentimes.”
Pusey believes it’s critical that teenagers are dissuaded from smoking.
“We know that the younger you are when you start the more likely you are to not quit,” she said, adding that people who smoked for the first time during their college years had more success kicking the habit than those who started in high school.
Another concern revealed by the report is the fact that both Worcester County and the State of Maryland failed to meet standards regarding the sale of tobacco to minors. Pusey said certain grants mandated that at least 80 percent of businesses selling tobacco refused to sell tobacco to minors. In Worcester County, only 75 percent of the businesses checked prevented minors from buying tobacco.
“This is the first time Worcester County and the state have been out of compliance in recent years,” Pusey said.
To address the issue, though, Pusey says Worcester County is set to receive an additional $60,000 from the state in tobacco enforcement funds. She said the health department would be providing funding to the Worcester County’s Sheriff’s Department to do compliance checks and would increase its educational efforts where it could.
“We did this in the early days,” she said. “When funding went away the effort went away.”
She said it’s particularly important that education efforts continue as the variety of tobacco products on the market increases.
“They’re making these products more attractive and they’re appealing to young people,” she said, referencing the array of flavors offered in tobacco products these days.
She also expressed concern over the use of electronic cigarettes among young people.
“We know it’s an issue and we’re certainly watching it,” she said.
In addition to monitoring new products and increasing its educational efforts, the health department will continue to offer smoking cessation classes. Two new classes will begin the first week of January in Berlin and Pocomoke.
Pusey says the free classes, paired with the vouchers the health department can provide for aids to stop smoking, is the best way for people to quit.
“Participation in group education and support classes in combination with a cessation aid is the most effective strategy,” Pusey said.