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Oklahoma's adult smoking rate falls to record low

Oklahoma City — When he travels by plane, Terry Cline says he can pick out the people waiting to fly to Oklahoma — not by their Sooner gear, but by their oxygen tanks and wheelchairs.

Illness and disability aren't surprising, given the state's high smoking and obesity rates, said Cline, secretary of Health and Human Services and commissioner of the Oklahoma State Department of Health. But new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests efforts to improve Oklahomans' health may be starting to slowly pay off.

In 2016, Oklahoma's smoking rate fell to its lowest level since the federal government has tracked tobacco use, with 19.6 percent of adults reporting they smoke. That was down from 22.1 percent of adults in 2015, suggesting about 72,000 people may have quit smoking last year.

E-cigarette use also dropped. About 6.7 percent of Oklahoma adults reported vaping, down from 7.3 percent in 2015.

The obesity rate also appeared to fall, though the change was small enough that it could have been due to statistical chance. The CDC's Behavioral Risk Factors Surveillance System estimated about 32.8 percent of Oklahoma adults were obese in 2016, down from 33.9 percent in 2015.

There's still a long way to go. Oklahoma's smoking rate is still above the national average of 17.1 percent, and only eight states have a higher obesity rate.

Smoking increases the odds of developing various cancers, heart disease and stroke, and studies have found links between obesity and chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, some cancers and depression.

Not everyone was equally at risk. People between the ages of 25 and 34 were most likely to smoke in Oklahoma, and people with less education were more likely to light up.

Hispanic and black, non-Hispanic Oklahomans were at a higher risk of obesity, at with rates of 36.7 percent and 36.6 percent, respectively. About 32.3 percent of white Oklahomans who don't identify as Hispanic were obese.

The term Hispanic in the CDC data refers to having ancestry in a Spanish-speaking country, so a Hispanic person could identify as any race, or multiple races.

The CDC data didn't include information on Native Americans or people from other racial groups.

The data comes from a telephone survey. People who participate report whether they smoke and their height and weight, which are used to calculate their body mass index.

The smoking rate in Oklahoma has been falling for more than a decade, Cline said, but has accelerated in the last four years. He attributed that partially to state properties, including college campuses, banning smoking. Businesses, churches and other groups participating in the Certified Healthy Oklahoma program also have decided to ban smoking on their properties, which makes it easier for people who want to quit tobacco to stick with it, he said.

“We want to make the healthy choice the easy choice,” he said.

Discussion about increasing the cigarette tax also may have encouraged more people to quit, Cline said, because calls to the quit line tend to increase when smokers expect to pay more. A $1.50 per pack cigarette “fee” was ruled an unconstitutional tax earlier this year, but some have floated the possibility of trying to pass it again to fill a $215 million hole in the state's budget.

It isn't as clear if the decrease in the obesity rate represents a trend, Cline said, but the rate has increased more slowly in recent years. Not long ago, Oklahoma was on track to have the highest obesity rate in the United States, so moving from eighth-highest in 2015 to ninth-highest is a victory, he said.

“It's like swimming against the tide,” he said. “It's even more significant that you're making progress.”

Communities have begun adopting strategies like building sidewalks to encourage physical activity, setting up community gardens and allowing families that get help from the Women, Infants and Children program to use their food dollars at farmer's markets, Cline said. Over time, small changes in many places can start to drive trends in a positive direction, he said.

“I think this is an exciting time in Oklahoma's history where we can significantly improve quality of life,” he said.

Meg Wingerter

Meg Wingerter has covered health at The Oklahoman since July 2017. Previously, she lived in Topeka, Kansas, and worked at Kansas News Service and The Topeka Capital-Journal, where she earned awards for business coverage. She graduated from... Read more ›