By ERIN McCLAM, Associated Press Writer
ATLANTA (AP) - Blue-collar Midwestern and Southern cities such as Cleveland, Toledo, Ohio, and Huntington, W.Va., have the nation's highest smoking rates, according to the government's first city-by-city study of tobacco use.
Smoking rates are lowest in Western and Eastern cities, such as San Diego and Begen-Passaic, N.J., where clean indoor-air laws are stronger and cigarette taxes are higher, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday.
Toledo, a city of 313,000 people, had the highest rate of any metropolitan area in the country, with more than 31 percent of its residents reporting they were smokers.
The rate was 29.8 percent for both the northeast Ohio area of Cleveland, Lorain and Elyria and for the Huntington-Ashland areas.
"We're an industrial city," said Larry Vasko, deputy director of the Toledo-Lucas County Board of Health. "We have a lot of kids smoking, a lot of young adults smoking."
The health department this summer adopted a ban on smoking inside all public places, including bars and restaurants. The divisive decision is being held up by a lawsuit.
Arnie Elzey, owner of Arnie's Eating and Drinking Saloon in Toledo, is leading the fight against the smoking ban.
"We're a blue-collar town," Elzey said. "People enjoy sitting down with a beer and smoking a cigarette. It's Toledo. It's not California."
Orange County, Calif., had the lowest rate -- just 13 percent. California has the nation's toughest public smoking ban, prohibiting smoking even in bars.
The study examined 99 cities last year, asking respondents in a random telephone survey whether they smoked at least on some days and whether they had smoked more than 100 cigarettes. Those who answered yes to both were labeled smokers.
Federal health officials hope breaking down the statistics to individual cities will help pinpoint areas where anti-tobacco programs need to be stronger, said Dr. Terry Pechacek of the CDC's Office on Smoking and Health.
Eventually, the government hopes to examine the smoking data alongside Census figures to highlight cultural variations in cities that might be leading more people to smoke.
"We think we'll find out a lot more about the variability," Pechacek said. "This is serving as a baseline to many of these local areas, as they start doing more on tobacco control."
In the Midwest, cities reported a median smoking rate of 23.7 percent, with the South close behind at 23.2. The figure was lowest in the West at 20.6, with the Northeast at 20.8 percent.
CDC analysts credited strong anti-smoking programs in the regions with low rates.
Smoking rates nationwide have remained mostly stagnant since the mid-1990s, with just under one-fourth of the population saying they smoke cigarettes.
In a separate report, the CDC released state-by-state smoking data.
Kentucky led the nation with 30.5 percent of its population smoking, and Utah had the lowest rate, just 12.9 percent.
Those figures do not surprise health officials. Kentucky, a major tobacco producer, topped the list from 1995 to 1999 and was briefly unseated last year by Nevada, with its 24-hour, smoke-friendly casinos and bars.
Utah, where the Mormon Church's opposition to smoking has been credited with keeping rates low, was also at the bottom of the list last year.
The government characterizes tobacco use as the leading preventable cause of death in the United States.