Smoking reported down 8 percent in Massachusetts

Jennifer Santos

Massachusetts now has one of the lowest smoking rates in the country. The number of smokers in Massachusetts dropped 8 percent last year. The state is now ranked in fourth place behind California, Utah and Connecticut.

John Auerbach, commissioner for the state Department of Public Health, said one of the main reasons for the decrease was a $4.5 million increase in tobacco prevention funding. Part of that money went to pay for a nicotine patch giveaway campaign.

The campaign, which began July 1 – the same day as the state’s $1 cigarette tax increase took effect – was extended to Aug. 31 because of the interest it attracted. Smokers can receive free access to nicotine patches, telephone counseling and group counseling.

A hot line telephone number, 1-800-TRY-TO-QUIT, is also available throughout the year for people who want to give up smoking permanently. The hot line, which generally receives 400 to 500 calls a month, received an overwhelming 7,000 calls in July from people looking to stop smoking, said Auerbach.

The state’s indoor smoking ban, which was established in 2005, has helped some people quit, but Auerbach believes another cause of the decrease has been from the Health Care Reform Act, which says anyone over 18 must obtain and keep health insurance.

“For the first time in years 350,000 more people are insured, seeing doctors and getting physicals, which usually come at a high cost if you’re uninsured,” said Auerbach. “It’s an unexpected benefit, but doctors have been talking their patients towards prevention.”

Smokers are also taking advantage of other benefits to having health insurance, such as access to nicotine replacements and support groups. The Internet has been another outlet for smokers to gain support to quit smoking and build communication with people with the popularity of social groups such as MySpace and Facebook, he said.

Auerbach said he doesn’t believe the interest in quitting smoking will abate once the free nicotine patch campaign ends. If anything, he said, more people will decide to stop smoking through nicotine replacements that they can obtain through their health insurance providers.

Jennifer Santos may be reached at