Monday Medical: Smoking is public health enemy No.1 |

Monday Medical: Smoking is public health enemy No.1

Christine McKelvie

If we knew that a particular prescription drug was the direct cause of more than 440,000 deaths each year in our country, we would expect it to be banned. If we were investors in the stock of the company that manufactured this drug, we would be urging our brokers to sell, sell, sell.

We are not talking about Vioxx or Merck. We are talking about a substance available over-the-counter — tobacco, of course.

As we approach the annual Great American Smokeout on Thursday, we will read statistics that defy logic. It is illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to purchase tobacco products, yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 4,000 youths younger than 18 try their first cigarettes every day. In one year, that adds up to nearly 1.5 million youths.

The CDC predicts that more than 6.4 million children living today will die prematurely because they decided to smoke cigarettes.

Statistics such as these are what keep Judy Hiester so passionate about her work as coordinator of the Tobacco Prevention Program with the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association.

“It is a public health issue, first and foremost, with 440,000 people dying every year from tobacco-related illness, and hundreds of thousands more disabled or experiencing a reduced quality of life from chew tobacco, smoking or secondhand smoke,” Hiester said.

Since the spring of 2002, when Hiester began coordinating the local program, she has seen increased awareness of tobacco issues use in our community.

“I applaud business owners at restaurants, bars, offices and all kinds of workplaces for recognizing the harmful effects of secondhand smoke,” she said.

Secondhand smoke not only causes cancer, death and other health problems, Hiester said, but it is also a workers’ rights issue. She said many agencies have been working together locally to get this message to employers and the public. A smoke-free bar and restaurant guide in Routt County is being developed.

Hiester said she would like to do a community survey to determine local attitudes about tobacco use. She said she is alarmed by the growing trend of tobacco use in American movies, which is heading back to the high level seen in 1950s films.

It is too early to tell what effect the recently passed Amendment 35 might have on reducing tobacco use in Colorado. The amendment raised the tax on a single pack of cigarettes from 20 cents (the lowest in the nation) to 84 cents. State taxes on cigars and chew tobacco are going up by 20 percent.

About 16 percent of the expected $175 million in annual revenue is expected to be allocated to tobacco education, prevention and cessation programs. A large portion will be spent on health care for children, Medicaid patients, the uninsured and medically indigent. Another share of the new tax will help pay for treatment of cancer, cardiovascular and pulmonary diseases caused by tobacco use.

The 27th annual Great American Smokeout on Thursday is a beacon of hope for the country. Steamboat Springs Middle School students in Ann Keating’s basic life skills classes are stuffing “Quit Kits” that will be available free throughout Routt County through November 30.

The kits, provided by Grand Futures Prevention Coalition, contain information about quitting smoking and smokeless tobacco. The kits can be picked up at the VNA office, Lyon Drug, City Market or Safeway in Steamboat Springs; the Clark Store; Bonfiglio Drug in Oak Creek; the Yampa Public Library; or the Hayden Mercantile.

Anyone who doesn’t want to wait until Thursday can call the free Colorado Quitline at 1-800-639-7848 or log on to This is the one time quitters do win.

Christine McKelvie is public relations director of Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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