Inquirer Editorial: On smoking, you've come a long way, Philly

Posted: November 27, 2012

The news that smoking rates in Philadelphia have fallen an impressive amount over the last few years offers new evidence that public-health initiatives to limit smoking aren't only about chasing away smokers who try to light up.

With the city's overall smoking rate dropping nearly 15 percent since 2008, city health officials estimate that 40,000 adults have kicked a habit that still kills 440,000 Americans each year.

The city's indoor smoke-free law - which paved the way for statewide restrictions in Pennsylvania - clearly played a major role in helping to change habits. That was complemented by a broader "Get Healthy Philly" initiative that promoted exercise and other healthy behaviors.

Companion efforts to restrict smoking in public settings also have been important, since they gave smokers additional incentives to quit or at least cut back. Toward that end, the city smartly banned smoking at more than 200 recreation centers and playgrounds. Like-minded thinking is behind recent moves in the suburbs, where Camden County over the summer banned smoking at county parks. In December, Cherry Hill officials will consider a similar ordinance.

When city Health Commissioner Donald F. Schwarz announced the statistics on smoking earlier this month, he appeared at a small West Philadelphia college that, so far, is the only college in the city to ban smoking entirely. Schwarz rightly suggested that other colleges and universities would be wise to follow suit.

The city's statistical smoking profile, however, shows that large swaths of the population living in poorer areas remain hooked on tobacco - with smoking rates nearly three times higher in some places than in Center City.

To reach these smokers, as well as discourage teens from starting the habit, the best strategy is the highly effective step of boosting the cost to smoke. But that means local officials will have to enlist the help of state and federal policymakers to raise tobacco taxes, which has been a tough sell in Harrisburg in recent years.

State lawmakers should reconsider that stance. The progress shown in the city and around the region in cutting smoking rates after a decade of stalled progress demonstrates that it's possible to try to save even more lives.

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