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Poor People In U.S. Can't Stop Smoking

While overall smoking has gone down in the United States, poorer parts of the country are unable to kick the habit.

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By Bryan Le

03/28/14

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As seen on AMC's Mad Men, smoking was once the habit of the glamorous jet set in the 1960s, when half of all men and women smoked. But thanks to a concerted effort to inform and educate the public about the dangers of smoking, cigarettes have fallen out of vogue with most of the population except among the poor and working class.

In other words, the leading cause of preventable death in the United States is only affecting its poorest citizens, and new data shows that the gap between the non-smoking rich and smoking poor is growing wider. For example, the more affluent suburbs of Washington see only one in ten people smoke, but in impoverished areas like Clay County in eastern Kentucky, four in ten smoke.

"It's just what we do here," said Ed Smith Jr., 51, while smoking. Having seen several of his friends die of lung cancer, however, Smith has been trying unsuccessfully to quit. “I want to see my grandson grow up.”

The new data came from a study that compared smoking rates by county from 1996 to 2012. Researchers found that wealthier counties had the sharpest declines in smoking rates while the poor counties struggled to stop. The difference was extremely apparent in the surveyed women; roughly half of women in wealthier counties stopped smoking while only four percent of women in poorer counties were able to quit.

“Smoking is leaving these fancy places, these big urban areas,” said Ali H. Mokdad, one of the authors of the study. “But it has remained in these poor and rural areas. They are getting left behind.”

Health experts have said that this socio-economic discrepancy means the government needs to refocus its anti-smoking efforts in order to cut the habit in poorer populations.

“The real conclusion here is we need to figure out clever ways to reach these groups,” said Michael P. Eriksen, dean of the school of public health at Georgia State University. “The effort has been pitiful so far compared to the potential benefit to society from getting these people to stop smoking.”

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