Cowlitz County continues to have a high number of smokers, with more than 24 percent of adults lighting up, but new statistics show they're exposing fewer people to their secondhand smoke.
"We've dropped a lot since 2003" (when the state started keeping statistics,) said Jessica Bell, tobacco control coordinator for Cowlitz County.
According to research released last week by the state Department of Health, the number of Cowlitz County adults reporting exposure to secondhand smoke at home dropped from 17.7 percent in 2003 to 11.1 percent in 2007 and 2008, the department's most recent statistics.
"Holding steady is better than increasing," Bell said, referring to the last two years stats. "Of course we'd like to see a decrease because that means we're not having smoke in the home around children."
Statewide, the secondhand smoke exposure rate dropped from 19.3 percent in 2000 to 7.6 percent in 2008. State officials say the Department of Health's comprehensive Tobacco Prevention and Control Program is on target to meet its goal of reducing in-home secondhand smoke exposure to 6 percent or less by 2013.
"The new research confirms an encouraging trend," said Tim Church, spokesman for the state's Department of Health.
Bell and other health officials attributed the drop partially to landlords banning smoking in their rentals.
"We have some properties that have chosen to do (totally) smoke-free apartments," she said. "It's not only a health issue, but it cuts down on the cost of turning over apartments. It's expensive to paint and replace carpets because of smoking."
Rates of secondhand smoke exposure at home were higher in neighboring counties. Pacific County had the highest rate among local counties — and the second highest in the state — with 16.9 percent of adults reporting exposure to secondhand smoke in their home. Wahkiakum County reported 15.8 percent. Lewis County was at 11.8 percent, just slightly higher than Cowlitz County.
Stevens County in Eastern Washington had the highest rate in the state, at 17.8 percent.
Despite a healthy statewide drop in overall secondhand smoke exposure, an estimated 370,000 adults statewide still report that someone smokes inside their home. People from low-income or low-educational backgrounds are nearly twice as likely to report someone smoking inside their home, health officials say.
The state Department of Health is focusing educational campaigns on renters, who are more likely to be low-income than residents of owner-occupied homes. The rate of smoking inside the home among all renters is 12.5 percent, more than double the 6 percent rate among homeowners.
Bell said there are more ways to reduce exposing others to secondhand smoke than just smoking outside the home.
"We know now there's a thirdhand smoke that stays in your hair and on your clothing that can be just as dangerous to others," she said. "We encourage people to use smoking jackets when you leave the house, which you leave outside, that way you don't bring secondhand chemicals inside the house."
In 2006, the U.S. Surgeon General released a landmark report warning that there is no safe level of exposure to secondhand smoke and that eliminating smoking indoors is the only way to fully protect people where they live and work.
A recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 87 percent of Washington homes have a no-smoking rule — the fourth highest rate in the nation. However, 18 percent of adult smokers with children at home report that smoking occurs indoors.
Children are more susceptible to the effects of respiratory diseases caused or worsened by secondhand smoke, including asthma and bronchitis. Because they're small, they breathe more rapidly than adults and take in more secondhand smoke when exposed.