California has made major progress curbing tobacco use since voters increased the tax on cigarettes in 1988 by 25 cents a pack and dedicated the money to smoking prevention programs.
Smoking rates have been cut from 23 percent of the adult population back then to 12 percent in 2011. That means half as many people endangering their lives, driving up health care costs and wasting precious income on an addictive habit.
But a report this month by the state Department of Public Health provides troubling data on youth smoking that suggests nearly a quarter-century of reduction in tobacco usage might be ending -- that smoking rates might have bottomed out.
That would be a horrible shame. As the department director, Dr. Ron Chapman, notes, smoking still kills more people than alcohol, AIDS, car crashes, illegal drugs, murders and suicides combined. And then there's the cost: Adult tobacco-related health care expenditures in California are estimated to reach $6.5 billion this year, or about $400 per taxpayer.
While great progress has been made, there's a long way to go. And we may be losing ground with the group that matters most: our youth. They are the most vulnerable. In California, 64 percent of smokers start by age 18, and 96 percent start by age 26.
Which brings us to the troubling trends: More retailers are illegally selling tobacco to minors. The number of children who smoked a cigarette by age 13 or 14 has increased. Adults ages 18 to 24 are smoking at greater rates than other age groups, and the percentage has started to rise. In all cases, the upticks are not large but the trend is in the wrong direction.
Cigarettes are not the only tobacco problem. High school students are using smokeless products more. We're talking about snuff, chewing tobacco and snus, a spitless tobacco that's placed under the lip.
Use of hookahs, Middle-Eastern style water pipes, is increasing rapidly. In California, young adults are the most likely to partake, as popular hookah bars in downtown San Jose attest. Smoking a hookah for 45 to 60 minutes can be the equivalent of smoking 100 or more cigarettes, according to the state report.
Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death and disease. Unfortunately, the industry's political clout remains huge. Last June, tobacco companies funded most of the $48 million campaign that narrowly defeated Proposition 29, which would have increased the tax on cigarettes by $1 a pack.
There's no question that tobacco taxes discourage consumption. The state's current rate of 87 cents a pack is far below the national average. Even if Proposition 29 had passed, California still would have had only the 25th highest tax in the nation.
Backers should try again -- and soon. California can't afford to write off its younger generation to a deadly addiction.