OUR MEN LOVE THEIR SMOKES AND DOPE
By ALEX EASTON and SHAN GOODWIN
LISMORE'S Corey Bulley took up smoking when he moved to the Northern Rivers two years ago.
"Everywhere you go around here people are smoking ciggies or pot. I think we're more open to socialising here and smoking goes with that," he said.
Whatever the reason, new figures released by the North Coast Area Health Service show the smoking rate among young men on the Northern Rivers are so high that health officials are describing it as a medical emergency.
Figures from NSW Health show 64 per cent of men aged between 25 and 34 on the Northern Rivers smoke, compared with a State average of 31 per cent.
And officials suspect the region's high rate of marijuana use may be behind the alarming figures, saying the practice of mixing cannabis with tobacco may be hooking people, who otherwise might not smoke.
It is a theory unpopular with smokers who spoke to The Northern Star yesterday, but one backed by Hemp Embassy spokesman Michael Balderstone, who said he knew several people who said they got on to cigarettes through cannabis.
Mr Balderstone suggested the link could also work the other way, encouraging people to smoke more cannabis than they otherwise might because they do not realise the cravings they suffer stem from nicotine.
"It certainly makes people smoke a lot more pot ? all these people who are in a bad mood until they have their morning bong; it's the tobacco," he said.
North Coast Area Health Service health promotion manager Uta Dietrich said her team was now devising a study to test the hypothesis. The results, whatever the result, would play a major role in developing new anti-smoking strategies.
Drug and Alcohol area manager David Reilly said the idea that cannabis use could lead to cigarette smoking was new.
"Is cannabis a gateway drug to tobacco use? The drug and alcohol research community are only now becoming aware of that question," Mr Reilly said.
Ten smokers who spoke to The Northern Star yesterday answered 'no'.
Corey, and friend Judd, a former smoker, said so- cio-economic status had more to do with the high rates of smoking.
"The majority of people in Lismore live in poverty and a cigarette nulls that," Judd said. "Smoking has nothing to do with anything other than suppressing feelings." The cannabis link was tenuous, the men said.
"There are two different types of stoned," Corey said. "There is the 'pick me up off the ground I can't move' stoned and then there is the pleasure zone. People are more likely to spin (mix tobacco with pot) when they're going for the pleasure zone."
Ms Dietrich said the NSW Health figures offered some comfort: The smoking rate tapered off sharply as men aged. In the 35-44 age group, only 37 per cent of men smoked ? still well above the State average of 24 per cent, but well down on the 25-34 age group.
Ms Dietrich said the drop-off could be caused by people abandoning smoking as they aged ? or migration to the region by older people from areas with lower rates of smoking could be masking the figures.
Mr Reilly said there were no figures on the rate of general cannabis use on the Northern Rivers, but the rate of arrests for cannabis possession and cultivation were among the highest in the State, suggesting usage rates would be also very high.