2006-02-09 / This Week's Attitude

Smoking’s Declined, But Too Many Still Won’t Kick The Habit

This Week
By Neil S. Friedman

The harmful effects of smoking received renewed, however brief, awareness last summer following the lung cancer deaths of popular television newsman Peter Jennings, 67, and former “Dallas” actress Barbara Bel Geddes, 82, and subsequently by news that Dana Reeve, 44, a non-smoker and widow of actor Christopher Reeve, was diagnosed with the disease. Regrettably, it takes celebrity tragedies to stimulate attention to troubles that plague the rest of society. The American Cancer Society estimates that about 450 Americans die every day from lung cancer, but there’s never news about that.

Though less than one-fifth of Americans still smoke and the rise in bans on smoking in public places in the last decade has grown, the habit and its negative effects still take a devastating toll on lives and the economy.

According to the ACS, ten states and the District of Columbia have enacted statewide smoking bans, including New York, which was the first. New Jersey will initiate a statewide ban (except in casinos) next year. Additionally, there are currently about 200 municipalities nationwide where environmental smoking regulations are the law. Tobacco-growing states, such as Virginia and South Carolina, will probably never consider comprehensive smoking prohibitions that would undermine those states’ economies. Surprisingly, Louisville, once the heart of tobacco country, enacted a partial smoking ban last fall.

When I made a stopover in North Carolina several years ago I was surprised to see smoking banned in the airport, since tobacco has been a vital economic commodity in the state since the 18th century. (Federally regulated airports take precedence over state laws.) To accommodate smokers, the airport put up a large Plexiglas cubicle where the addicted could puff away to their lungs’ desire. Outside the enclosure, passersby could barely see within for all the smoke that filled the sectioned-off area. There had to be some kind of filtration to extract the smoke, but the excess of simultaneous smokers obviously overtaxed the system.

The anti-smoking crusade is not limited to the U.S. At least eight countries, including Ireland, Italy and Spain, restrict smoking in public places, and Great Britain is set to follow suit.

Why bright, sensible individuals refuse to give up the deadly, disgusting habit is puzzling. If nicotine addiction damaged the human body as rapidly as heroin or crack cocaine, almost every smoker would certainly kick the habit quicker than you can say, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.”

The most astute anti-smoking wisdom I’ve ever heard came from my ex-father-in-law: “If smoking did to the face what it does to the lungs, no one would smoke.” Vanity, alas, is a much deadlier sin than lawful nicotine addiction.

Widely exposed public service announcements should be created with a tactic similar to one employed in the unforgettable “This is your brain on drugs” campaign from years ago. In this instance, a picture of a healthy lung could be displayed as a voice-over says: “This is the lung of a 40-year-old non-smoker.” A second picture of a blackened lung would then fill half the screen as the voice-over says: “This is the lung of a pack-a-day smoker, age 23.”

Innumerable studies have verified that smoking is the number one cause of preventable death and disease in the U.S. It has been determined that 87 percent of those who contract lung cancer are smokers. Equally significant, some smokers still reject, ignore or are simply indifferent to evidence that second-hand smoke is harmful to others. According to the American Lung Association, more than 200,000 infants and children under 18 months old who breathe second-hand smoke are annually diagnosed with respiratory problems.

My parents were smokers. I never got the habit because I was diagnosed with asthma and a tobacco allergy when I was seven, long before the first surgeon general’s report warned of its dangers. However, since evidence of the habit’s negative secondary effects weren’t widely known until the 1990’s, neither reduced their intake, which left my brother, who died from an asthma attack at age 39, and I was exposed to second-hand smoke for many years that, undeniably, aggravated our ailments.

Like alcohol, which when used in excess is harmful and sometimes deadly, tobacco is the core of a highly profitable industry, so lawmakers bow to pressure from the tobacco industry lobby and are reluctant to restrict its use. But with all the evidence of its risky and addictive effects, there’s no reason — except economical — that nicotine shouldn’t be classified as an illegal drug, like marijuana, cocaine and heroin.

In his recent State of the City address, Mayor Bloomberg requested Albany approve an additional 50 (not Fitty) cent cigarette tax, in the city which already has the highest such levy in the country. That’s on top of the $3.50-per-pack state and city taxes previously instituted. The mayor said the additional revenue would be used to step up anti-smoking programs. Some argue the mayor is attempting to bolster city coffers by profiting from the vices of others, but he says the increase is aimed at teenagers. Perhaps he’s simply trying to coerce first-time and novice smokers, especially the budget conscious, who are more prone to acquire the habit, to reflect before paying an astonishing $8 dollars-a-pack. Incidentally, the city’s health department reports that an estimated 200,000 New Yorkers have stopped smoking since Bloomberg raised the cigarette tax. But that still leaves more than a million foolhardy souls who can’t — or have no desire to — quit.

Smokers are well aware of the risks, including shorter lives, they take with every drag and puff. And trying to persuade them to quit is as pointless as asking the mayor to roll back cigarette taxes.

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