The annual Great American Smokeout began in the 1970s, when smoking and secondhand smoke were common. Since then, Americans’ attitudes about smoking have changed dramatically.

The idea for the Great American Smokeout grew from a 1970 event in Randolph, Massachusetts, at which Arthur P. Mullaney asked people to give up cigarettes for a day and donate the money they would have spent on cigarettes to a high school scholarship fund.

Then in 1974, Lynn R. Smith, editor of the Monticello Times in Minnesota, spearheaded the state’s first D-Day, or Don’t Smoke Day.

The idea caught on, and on Nov. 18, 1976, the California Division of the American Cancer Society got nearly 1 million smokers to quit for the day. That California event marked the first Smokeout, and the society took it nationwide in 1977.

Today is the 40th annual Great American Smokeout, when smokers are urged to quit for the day – and hopefully for good – and others are asked to encourage smokers to give up the habit.

About 36.5 million Americans still smoke cigarettes, and the American Cancer Society identifies tobacco use as the single largest preventable cause of disease and premature death in the world.

While cigarette smoking rates have dropped (from 42 percent in 1965 to 15.1 percent in 2015), cigar, pipe and hookah – other dangerous and addictive ways to smoke tobacco – are on the rise.

We know the arguments about smoking and smokers’ rights. We also know that any smoker being honest with himself or herself knows the habit is not healthy.

Even the most hardened smoker will advise his children or other children not to begin smoking. And smokers have heard their children say: “Put that cigarette down. Smoking is bad for you.”

Even worse, adults’ continuing behavior breaks down the negatives children are taught to associate with smoking.

That is part of the reason why cigarette smoking and use of smokeless tobacco continue to be prevalent among South Carolina youth, even though it is illegal for anyone under age 18 to purchase cigarettes and tobacco products. That students say cigarettes are easy to get should surprise no one. But why are they a popular commodity among youth?

Here are 2013 statistics for high-school students from the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control:

  •  59 percent of students have used a tobacco product.
  •  48.7 percent of students have smoked cigarettes.
  •  27.2 percent of students use a tobacco product (Male 32.1 percet, Female 21.9 percent).
  • 23.7 percent currently smoke cigarettes.
  • 9 percent use Smokeless Tobacco.

If youths did not believe smoking was socially acceptable, they wouldn’t smoke, no matter how accessible cigarettes are or aren’t.

It remains crucial that efforts to educate children about tobacco and why its use is anything but cool continue. After all, while it is true that laws work because most people are law-abiding, laws that are largely unenforceable get ignored. Better than any enforcement is lack of need for it.

The number of smokers does continue to decline, and that is in part due to continuing anti-smoking efforts, the increasingly unaccepted nature of smoking in public and the cost of smoking.

The American Cancer Society and its many allies continue to focus on preventing people from starting the use of tobacco and getting those who do use tobacco in any form to cease. While the strategy should not be compromised, the ACS and others are being forced by changing technology to decide where they stand on tobacco alternatives.

For now, the objective has been to keep those products out of the hands of young people by making them subject to the same laws that prohibit sales of tobacco products to minors. But most of the smoking alternative products, such as electronic cigarettes, do not incorporate tobacco at all, and some do not even have nicotine.

Openly advocating e-cigarettes and other products as healthy alternatives to smoking is not in the cards for the ACS. But automatic rejection is shortsighted when it comes to products that stand to help a lot more people join the ranks of those quitting the use of tobacco during this Great American Smokeout and Smokeouts to come.

With DHEC’s South Carolina numbers showing more than a third of South Carolina students have used what the agency defines as “a new and emerging tobacco product,” it’s clear that accurately portraying these products and determining their future are important.

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