A little more than 50 years ago, Dr. Luther Terry, then the Surgeon General of the United States, released the nation’s first report on the health effects of smoking tobacco. The 2014 Surgeon General’s office made much fanfare of the report’s 50th anniversary, releasing a new report that holds to a hard and certain line, casting smoking in a negative light while also pointing out that the national smoking rate has been reduced by half, according to Center for Disease Control statistics. Despite this marked decline in smoking rates, Capitol Hill has more tobacco shops than ever, recently numbering six since the opening of Tobacco Leaf at 215 Broadway East.
Tobacco Leaf is the newest smoke shop run by brothers Nadim and Murad Baluch, who immigrated to the United States from Pakistan in the early 1980s. Over the past 30 years, the Baluch brothers have been some of the top purveyors of cigars in the Pacific Northwest. Tobacco Leaf does indeed have a large, walk-in humidor that’s floor-to-ceiling premium cigars, though the front room of the new shop is only tangentially related to tobacco. Unique to any of the other shops owned by the Baluch brothers, Tobacco Leaf prominently displays glass pipes, hookahs and water pipes, i.e. bongs, all of which are commonly used for marijuana smoking.
When asked about the shop’s anticipation of Washington’s legal marijuana market, Murad Baluch said, “The Capitol Hill shop is about location and timing, as we’re heading into the cannabis market soon. We are part of the community the past 20 years. We are happy to be in the neighborhood, happy to serve the people here.”
Aiming for the marijuana market may be a better business plan for Tobacco Leaf if local and national tobacco use trends are any indication. The most local that our own smoking statistics get is at the county level. According to Public Health – Seattle, approximately 12 percent of people in King County are tobacco smokers. African Americans in the region are almost twice as likely smoke than Caucasians, with people of Asian descent being least likely to smoke, estimated at only five percent. Tobacco use correlates definitively and inverse proportionately in the study with income and highest level of education. By average across all racial backgrounds, a quarter of public school students in King County will have smoked by the 12th grade, though only 15 percent report having had tobacco within a month of the survey.
Though the King County report lacks 2013 data, national numbers indicate that the historical decline in smoking that has been happening since the 1960s stalled for several years in the early 2000s, then had a major dip in the decade that followed. The habit dropped nationwide by 2.9 percent between 2005 and 2012, pushing smoking rates in the U.S. below the 20-percent threshold for the first time since the government began gathering data.
It’s uncertain what prompted the sudden shift below the 20-percent rate, though one of the leading potential factors in quit assistance is the growing prevalence of cigarette alternatives like electronic cigarettes (e-cigs) and other vapor systems that provide users with nicotine in the form of a smoke-like vapor, but don’t involve the combustion of tobacco leaf. Data pulled from the CDC and tobacco industry reports show that roughly six percent of current tobacco users prefer e-cigs and that the number of smokers who have tried e-cigs doubled between 2010 and 2011 alone. Young adult smokers, those between the ages of 18 and 24, are the most likely group to use e-cigs, with women using them more often than men.
The role of e-cigs in tobacco quit rates has yet to be definitively determined, though an early study conducted by Drs. Bullen, Howe, Laugesen, McRobbie, Parag, Williman and Walker, published in the September issue of The Lancet, suggests that e-cigs may have a statistically significant impact on quit rates. The study showed slightly higher abstinence rates at six months when people intending to quit switched to e-cigs, as compared with those who chose nicotine patches or used placebo e-cigs. The study urges further research into the value of e-cigs in tobacco quit assistance.
Tobacco Leaf on Broadway prominently displays e-cigs and vapor systems in the store’s front window. Their staff are very enthusiastic about the technology, even as a method to help people quit the store’s main product.
One young clerk said, “A lot of people are very interested in the vapor systems, especially the younger customers. I think it’s good that they’re interested, if it helps them quit and gets them interested in different things.”