Kentucky has lost its No. 1 ranking in one health category, and most people in the state welcome the news.
The commonwealth dropped to sixth place among the states in 2013 for high school cigarette use. That's a major improvement from the state's first-place ranking in 2011, according to a report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
"Maybe kids are finally hearing that it's not cool to smoke cigarettes," said Ellen Walsh, a certified prevention specialist with Four Rivers Behavioral Health in Paducah.
Anti-smoking prevention efforts appear to be paying off in Paducah as well as the rest of the state.
"I would like to attribute that to local prevention efforts," said Monique Zuber, executive director of the United Way for Paducah-McCracken County. "I think it's education and making sure you're getting information not once but repeatedly into the hands of youth."
Walsh said one key to reducing cigarette use is changing community attitudes toward smoking.
"Prevention works best by changing community norms and community acceptance, and I think we have changed the attitude here," Walsh said.
Survey results showed that 17.9 percent of Kentucky high school students reported cigarette smoking, down from 24.1 percent in 2011. Nationwide, the rate is 15.7 percent. In 1997, when the CDC first started tracking student smoking, the rate was 47 percent.
The drop means Kentucky has met its Healthy Kentuckians 2020 goal of reducing youth smoking to 19 percent.
"When I announced our ambitious goals for kyhealthnow in February of this year, smoking was one of the most obvious areas we needed to address," Gov. Steve Beshear said in a statement. "I am pleased to see teen smoking trending downward, but I remain committed to further reducing cigarette use among our youth."
Reducing smoking among young people is a key component of kyhealthnow, which includes priorities for comprehensive smoke-free policies and 100 percent tobacco-free schools. According to information collected by the Department for Public Health, 33 of Kentucky's 173 public school districts are currently 100 percent tobacco-free.
With nearly nine out of 10 smokers starting by age 18, preventing the initiation of smoking among youth is a key element in reducing the overall burden of tobacco use in Kentucky. Youth can develop cardiovascular disease, smaller lungs that don't function normally, wheezing that can lead to asthma and eventually cellular damage that can lead to cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes and a host of other diseases.
"While we're pleased to see a reduction in youth smoking, it's important to note that we still have too many youth who smoke and others who are exposed to secondhand tobacco smoke," said Dr. Stephanie Mayfield, commissioner for DPH and vice chair of kyhealthnow.
The youth survey is conducted in Kentucky every other year, on odd-numbered years. The 2013 report is available at www.cdc.gov/yrbs.
Adults and youth as young as 15 can access the quit coaching services provided through 1-800-QuitNow (1-800-784-8669), or www.QuitNowKentucky.org. The service is free.
Staff writer Becca Schimmel contributed to this article.