Although the numbers have dropped in recent years, the hard drinking and two-packs-a-day cigarette habit are threatening the health of many valley residents, says a study released Thursday.
Central Valley residents outpace the rest of the state in alcohol and tobacco use. They also are more likely to die from heart attacks, strokes or cancer, health conditions often tied to smoking and alcohol abuse, says a Great Valley Center study on the health status of the Central Valley.
Excessive drinking in the valley has declined since 2003, when almost 30 percent of residents told a statewide survey they had at least one heavy drinking episode in the past month.
The number fell to 18 percent in an updated survey, yet heavy drinking is still more common here than in the Bay Area and in Southern California, the study says.
Despite a national decline in cigarette smoking, the San Joaquin Valley still has more smokers per capita than other regions of California. The valley has dropped close to 4 percentage points since 1999.
"We know that smoking is a risk factor leading to lung cancer and heart disease," said Phoebe Leung, assistant director at the Stanislaus County Health Services Agency. "It definitely impacts the health of people in the county."
It's well-known that smokers have a higher risk of heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and chronic lung problems. Pregnant women who smoke run the risk of miscarriage and other pregnancy complications.
Besides damaging the heart, liver and pancreas, alcohol abuse tears at the fabric of communities, as it's often associated with child and spousal abuse, teen pregnancy, school dropout rates, homelessness, motor vehicle crashes, homicides and suicides, the study says.
The health problems associated with tobacco and alcohol cause an escalation of health care costs in the valley.
The Great Valley Center assessed more than two dozen health care indicators, from health insurance coverage and a lack of physicians to infants' low birth weight and rising asthma rates, in "The State of the Great Central Valley: Public Health and Access to Care." The first report was written in 2003.
"This report shows we are making incremental progress in a number of areas such as immunizing our children," said David Hosley, president of the research center. He hopes the findings will spark discussion among valley residents, community leaders and policy-makers.
Deaths from coronary disease in the Northern San Joaquin Valley occur at a far higher rate than the state average of 163 deaths per 100,000 population. From 2003 to 2005, the death rate was 225 per 100,000 in Stanislaus County, 220 per 100,000 in San Joaquin County and 184 per 100,000 in Merced County.
In the three counties, the death rates from stroke and cancer also are well above the state average, the study says.
Some valley counties are shortchanged by the state's method of distributing Proposition 99 tobacco tax funds, which are used to support anti-smoking campaigns. The state distributes the money to counties based on their 1990 population, even though counties such as Stanislaus had explosive growth in the past 18 years, said Ken Fitzgerald, tobacco project director for the county.
Stanislaus County receives $150,000 in tobacco tax money per year, which is not enough to pay for anti-smoking campaigns.
The county Health Services Agency partners with schools, employers and community organizations to run prevention programs.
In other efforts, the county will encourage employers to give incentives for workers to kick the habit and Ceres has banned smoking at youth baseball games. The Doctors Medical Center Foundation is working with apartment owners to promote no-smoking apartments and is trying to establish John Thurman Field as a smoke-free ballpark.
The county developed an alcohol prevention plan for underage drinking after a 2005 survey found that one in four 11th-graders had binged on alcohol in the past 30 days. Authorities recorded two alcohol poisoning deaths in a nine-month period, one a 19-year-old Modesto man in March 2007 and the other a 16-year-old Turlock girl in December.
Last year, several cities passed social host ordinances to fine adults who furnish alcohol to minors at parties, and now the county wants to work with community groups in those cities to develop other strategies to address underage drinking.
"With the social host ordinances, it is about holding parents accountable, but also about sending a message it is not OK to provide alcohol to minors," said Ruben Imperial, a spokesman for county Behavioral Health and Recovery Services.
The Great Valley Center study looked at other health issues and found the valley is making some progress. More children are being immunized and heart disease has declined in some areas.
The report discusses the barriers to health care for children living in poverty. In some portions of the San Joaquin Valley, more than 32 percent of children live in poverty. Almost 9 percent of San Joaquin Valley children are not covered by private insurance or government health programs.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2321.