To end his days of heavy drinking, Atlantic City resident Leo Mahoney stopped going to bars and parties where alcohol was served. That technique, however, didn’t seem to work when he tried to quit smoking.
“Where do you go where people aren’t smoking?” asked Mahoney, 46, who lit up a cigarette along the Boardwalk during an afternoon break from his casino job. “You’re bound to run into somebody smoking, and then it hits you.”
Mahoney said that many of the people he knows are smokers, making it harder for him to quit. Health statistics, in fact, show that South Jersey has a higher prevalence of smoking than the rest of New Jersey.
The latest study from the American Cancer Society found a large disparity between cancer rates in northern and southern New Jersey, particularly in lung cancer, according to Blair Horner, one of the researchers who published last month’s New Jersey Cancer Burden report.
“That’s what is driving the difference between north and south,” Horner said of cancer rates. “By and large, the smoking rate is higher in South Jersey than North Jersey.”
According to the Department of Health, Cape May, Gloucester, Atlantic, Cumberland and Ocean have the highest incidence of lung and bronchus cancer among New Jersey counties. Smoking is one of the primary causes of lung cancer.
In Atlantic County, about 20 percent of all adults smoke — that’s one in five people — according to state health data in 2009. That compares to about 15 percent in North Jersey and 13 percent in Central Jersey, according to a tobacco surveillance data report published in July 2009 by what was then called the Comprehensive Tobacco Control Program. That program is now a part of the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services.
Overall, New Jersey has a lower incidence of smoking at about 14 percent, compared to the national 17 percent in 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Horner said he believes that North Jersey residents benefit from the media and aggressive anti-smoking campaigns coming out of New York City — where tobacco use is about 13 percent — while South Jersey residents are more influenced by Delaware and Pennsylvania, both of which have higher incidence of tobacco use, at 17 and 18 percent respectively in 2010, according to the CDC
Emma Lopez, a health educator in Vineland, said many parts of South Jersey, especially the rural areas, are cut off from anti-smoking campaigns coming out of New York.
“A lot of the media that’s done doesn’t reach South Jersey,” she said.
Last year, in recognition of the disparity between North and South Jersey smoking rates, the state health department gave the South New Jersey Perinatal Cooperative in Camden County the bulk of an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grant to promote the New Jersey Quit Line, said Merle Weitz, the director for special programming initiatives at the cooperative.
Before the funding, only about 16 percent of the people who used Quit Line — a free telephone counseling service for smokers — lived in South Jersey, she said. That participation has since increased to 25 to 40 percent, Weitz said.
Many of the people who remain smokers, however, are heavily addicted to nicotine and, due to other life stresses, find it difficult to quit.
“It’s education and jobs,” Lopez said. “It’s very difficult in the health department to affect that.”
South Jersey routinely falls low in other heath rankings compared with the rest of the state. The region has higher death rates due to cancer, diabetes and other diseases, particularly among the rural poor, Weitz said.
“It’s a lot of reading in between the lines,” she said.
While most smokers know of the health risks, several in South Jersey said that their habit had become so ingrained in their lives that that they believed smoking helped them cope with stress.
“If you have a really bad day, the first thing you have is a cigarette,” said David Devery, a 23-year-old Somers Point man who has been smoking for seven years.
Easy access to cigarettes, particularly in counties that border other states where taxes are low, also helps encourage smoking, Weitz said.
Delaware and Pennsylvania impose a cigarette tax of $1.60 for a pack of 20. The same pack is taxed in New Jersey at $2.70; New York state taxes at $4.35 and New York City is at $5.85.
Tobacco usage also can affect the unborn with a higher incidence of use among pregnant women in parts of South Jersey, according to the most recent statistics. The New Jersey Center for Health Statistics said that in 2007, about 89 percent of births in the state came from mothers who abstained from smoking during their pregnancies, while in counties, such as Cape May and Cumberland, that figure was much lower at 78 and 85 percent.
Mahoney, the Atlantic City smoker, said that he has been addicted to nicotine since he would sneak off to smoke at age 14. He’s tried at least 10 times to quit with no success.
“I’m not giving up,” he said. “It’s something I have to will myself and say, ‘Enough is enough.’“
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