WASHINGTON — It has historically been known as a big tobacco state. But a Virginia municipality is leading the nation in stamping out smoking among men.
Researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington crunched years worth of data from municipalities around the country.
They compared stats county by county — including independent cities considered county equivalents by the Census Bureau.
Falls Church City had the lowest smoking rate among men at 9.9 percent. Arlington County at 11.8 percent was No. 4 on the list. Loudoun County with 13.1 percent rounded out the top 10.
“I am not surprised to hear that our general community at large has a lower smoking rate than most other parts of the country,” says Dr. Warren Levy, chief medical officer of Virginia Heart, the largest cardiology practice in the region.
Demographics may be largely responsible. The areas in Northern Virginia cited by the University of Washington researchers are relatively affluent, with high education levels.
Levy says local residents tend to be very health-conscious and very aware of the dangers of smoking.
“They have heard the message. They have stopped smoking. They live a healthier lifestyle,” he says.
Another reason for the decline in smoking among men in large parts of Northern Virginia is the implementation of smoking bans in numerous businesses and public areas.
Levy — who is seeing far fewer smokers in his own Northern Virginia practice — says the bans have been enormously successful in putting pressure on smokers.
“They have to some degree, been ostracized from society, ” he says, adding they now have to pay much more attention to where and when they smoke.
The bans have heightened awareness of the risk of second-hand smoke, and that has sent its own powerful message. Levy says when he was a child, both his parents smoked and never had an inkling they might be harming their kids.
“Today, parents know that they are putting people around them and their children at risk,” says Levy, noting that can be a powerful incentive to quit.
In the University of Washington study, not only did the three jurisdictions in Northern Virginia have the lowest smoking rate among men, they had some of the steepest rates of decline between 1996 and 2012, with Falls Church City again topping the list.
But there is a sign that the state as a whole has a way to go. Virginia has the biggest gap in the country between the jurisdiction with the lowest smoking rate and the one with the highest.
Sussex County in south central Virginia has a 33.5 percent smoking rate among men. That’s 23.6 percentage points higher than Falls Church City.