As we enter the New Year, many of us are pledging to get healthier — to lose weight, exercise more, eat more fruits and vegetables. But possibly the healthiest resolution, and one of the most enduring, is to quit smoking.
But given that tobacco kills more people every year than alcohol, car accidents, cocaine, heroin, homicide, suicide, fire and AIDS combined, wouldn’t it be better never to start?
That’s what Tobacco-Free Onondaga County thinks, and that’s why the organization is dedicated to preventing youth smoking and the exposure of children to tobacco through a series of initiatives.
“Last spring, the surgeon general released a report saying that young people are a primary target of the tobacco industry. They said that tobacco companies’ marketing is a primary cause of youth tobacco use,” said Jacqueline Shostack, MSEd, CHES, coordinator of TBOC. “We need to do something about that. The way we do that in our community is by creating a community that is supportive, and demand change regarding the marketing to and influence on kids.”
TBOC is funded through the state by the Onondaga County Department of Health. It’s been around since 1991 — as has Shostack, who has been with the program since its incarnation (save for a brief sojourn to the county’s obesity prevention program). She said each of the state’s counties is represented by a similar organization.
“We work in unison on the exact same initiatives, though they’re tailored to each community,” Shostack said. “We all have the same goals, priorities and initiatives.”
Those goals are as follows:
• Eliminating exposure to secondhand smoke
• Decreasing the social acceptability of tobacco use
• Preventing the initiation of tobacco use among youth and young adults
• Promoting cessation from tobacco use
• Contributing to the science of tobacco control
New York state is a leader in tobacco prevention, according to Shostack.
“Other states look to us,” she said. “The Clean Indoor Air Act was one of the greatest things ever done in New York state. It made a significant change.”
Maybe that’s why the tobacco industry spends $1 million a day in marketing in New York alone, to drive up rates in the state. But it’s not working, according to the statistics.
“Fewer adults are smoking. The rates have gone down for adults — right now we’re at 18 percent in New York state, down from 21 percent in 2009,” Shostack said. “So these initiatives are having an influence because many people have quit, though some have died from diseases caused by tobacco.”
Unfortunately, the tobacco industry is looking to kids and teens to bulk up sales. The surgeon general reported that tobacco companies look to adolescents as “replacement smokers” because they’re more impressionable and susceptible to advertising campaigns.
“Nearly all tobacco use begins during youth and young adulthood,” Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, MD, MBA, wrote in her 2012 report. “Each day across the United States, more than 3,800 youth under age 18 smoke their first cigarette. Although much progress has been made to reduce the prevalence of smoking since the first Surgeon General’s report in 1964, today nearly one in four high school seniors and one in three young adults under age 26 smoke.”
Benjamin blamed several factors for the statistic, including youth susceptibility to tobacco, social pressures and norms and, most perniciously, the influence of the tobacco industry.
“Tobacco companies use multiple methods and spend lots of money to convince young people that using tobacco is OK—even attractive,” Benjamin wrote. “Their business depends on getting these young consumers to try—and to keep using—their products. Young people are responsive to marketing, making them vulnerable to messages that encourage tobacco use.”
In order to address the issue, TBOC focuses on three main initiatives to prevent youth tobacco use:
Point of Sale: Working to reduce the amount of tobacco product marketing in the retail environment.
“Point of sale is really the most important thing,” Shostack said. “If you can prevent kids from starting in the first place, it leads to fewer problems.”
TBOC has given presentations to local chambers of commerce in its efforts to address this problem. Part of the presentation is a slide show revealing how tobacco products are packaged to look like candy.
“When they see the pictures, it really grabs their attention,” Shostack said. “They’re always like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ Tobacco marketing is one of the only areas that’s not regulated in any way.”
But thanks to the Federal Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, local entities have the ability to do something about that. The law, passed in 2009, allows the Food & Drug Administration to regulate the manufacturing, marketing and sale of tobacco products. That means state and local governments can now legislate where, when and how tobacco products are sold and advertised.
Tobacco‐Free/Smoke‐Free Outdoors: Working with businesses and organizations throughout the community to eliminate tobacco use in outdoor areas; working with local municipalities to adopt policies or strengthen existing tobacco‐free policies on municipal grounds.
Many towns and villages have already passed local ordinances mandating that their parks remain smoke-free, as has Onondaga County, thanks to TBOC’s efforts.
“In our tobacco-free outdoor areas initiative, we’re trying to change social norms,” Shostack said. “They’re not seeing people smoking in these areas. Plus, we’re protecting kids and adults from the impact of secondhand smoke in parks and in the entryways to buildings.”
Smoke‐Free Housing: Encouraging apartment complexes, senior living homes, and other multi‐unit rental residences to prohibit the use of tobacco in their buildings and on their property.
“We’ve been very successful here in Onondaga County working with rental property owners and managers getting them to designate their properties as smoke-free,” Shostack said. “That protects folks by allowing them to live in a smoke-free environment.”
While TBOC has undertaken these initiatives as a county agency, it’s critical that the community get involved to support the effort.
“It’s important for everybody to be involved,” Shostack said. “Community members in general are the ones who will make some noise. We need to educate them so that they’re really influential in supporting what the decision makers are going to do, whether it’s the government or the president of a company. It’s people demanding change. We try to educate them so that they understand the influence of the tobacco industry in the community and the dangers of being exposed. They’re the ones who demand change.”
That agitation for change is what will truly make a difference in creating a healthier Central New York.
“I want my kids to be healthy. I want to be healthy. I want to have a healthier society,” Shostack said. “Tobacco is the single most preventable cause of disease and death. If we can do something about it, that’s great.”
Sarah Hall is the editor of the Eagle Star-Review and the Baldwinsville Messenger. The 2012 winner of the Syracuse Press Club's Selwyn Kershaw Professional Standards Award, she has been with Eagle Newspapers since 2006. She is a Liverpool native.