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Better enforcement is teen smoking vaccine

My View • Oregon is abdicating its role in battle against tobacco's seductive lure
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Estevan, 15, who had his first cigarette at age 8, smokes with friends in O'Bryant Square. Federal statistics show that Oregon is one of the easiest places in the country for youth to illegally buy cigarettes.

Peter Korn's article, 'State turns blind eye as stores break law' (Aug. 4), underscores Oregon's need for better enforcement of laws meant to eliminate the sale of tobacco products to minors.

Sadly, better enforcement alone is just part of the solution, and more attention to the bigger issue is critical.

Suppose there was a disease ravaging Oregon that killed almost 7,000 people every year and threatened 74,000 Oregon youth under 18 with premature death. Would this get your attention?

Now suppose there was a vaccine that could prevent that disease and significantly lower those numbers. Do you think Oregon would invest in this vaccine?

Those mortality statistics are real, although they are not related to what we usually think of as a disease. They're related to cigarette smoking. During these times of health care reform and rising medical costs, important work remains to reduce the effects tobacco has in Oregon, especially our youth.

There is substantial evidence that we do have a 'vaccine' that works and reduces tobacco's deadly health effects: well-funded, robust tobacco-control programs. Effective prevention programs play a crucial role in preventing chronic diseases and conditions. Comprehensive tobacco prevention and cessation programs prevent youth from starting to smoke, help adult smokers quit, educate the public, the media and policy makers about policies that reduce tobacco use, address disparities, and serve as a counter to the ever-present marketing machines of the tobacco industry.

As a nation, as a state and as local communities, we can do more to keep tobacco out of the hands of our youth. Think of comprehensive tobacco control in Oregon as a vaccine with several components.

Some of these components include education and programs to prevent new smokers, most of them youth, from starting to use tobacco. Almost 90 percent of adult smokers began smoking while they were teenagers, and more than one-third of all youth who try smoking a cigarette become regular, daily smokers before leaving high school.

The addiction rate for smoking is higher than the addiction rates for marijuana, alcohol or cocaine. A particularly powerful vaccine component is restricting youth's access to tobacco products - and we know two strategies that work: increasing prices and decreasing access.

Cigarette tax or price increases have been shown to reduce both adult and underage smoking. Every 10 percent increase in the real price of cigarettes reduces overall cigarette consumption by 3 percent to 5 percent and reduces the number of youth who smoke by 6 percent to 7 percent.

The American Lung Association's State of Tobacco Control 2010 report gave Oregon a 'D' for state tobacco taxes. Oregon's excise tax rate is below the national average at $1.18. Increasing this tax would result in declines in youth smoking - a move that would reduce tobacco's effects on Oregon's health and generate revenue.

In 1997, Congress passed the Synar Amendment to reduce youth access to tobacco products. This legislation requires states to have laws prohibiting the sale and distribution of tobacco products to youth under 18 and to enforce those laws effectively. Korn's article points clearly to one area where Oregon can improve in protecting our youth from tobacco - reducing access from commercial sources.

Community interventions and awareness combined with active enforcement of retailer sales laws, stronger local laws for retailers, and retailer education with reinforcement, will reduce youth tobacco use. There is essentially no enforcement of laws governing tobacco sales to minors in Oregon, and there is no way to track the location of tobacco retail stores.

Engaging in strategies to ensure enforcement and exploring retail licensure with the Legislature are other components in the anti-tobacco vaccine and would be a good investment for Oregon.

Fighting the tobacco industry, which spends $112 million each year marketing its deadly product to Oregonians, is challenging. Studies have shown that youth are twice as sensitive to tobacco advertising as adults and are more likely to be influenced to smoke by cigarette marketing than by peer pressure. Cigarette advertising continues to use themes resonating with youth, and tobacco companies continually introduce new products, many packaged in candy-like dispensers.

Cigarette companies are well aware that very few people try their first cigarette as adults and that if youth stopped smoking, their customer base would soon shrink to nearly zero. The tobacco industry itself is addicted to youth smoking, hence the need for all components of our vaccine.

Clearly, as health advocates, as communities and as a state that cares about our youth, our work in tobacco prevention isn't done.

The evidence is clear - comprehensive tobacco prevention programs work. Robust programs reduce smoking, save lives and save money by reducing health care costs. States are most successful in reducing smoking and its health and financial costs when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations are followed on program funding and structure.

The recommendation for Oregon is $43 million a year and should include public awareness media campaigns, school and community education programs, enforcement of laws regarding tobacco sales to minors and programs to help smokers quit. Tobacco generates $313 million for the state of Oregon; just $7.1 million is spent on tobacco prevention.

Well-funded tobacco prevention programs are the equivalent of a vaccine that protects our youth from tobacco addiction and its deadly consequences. Like other vaccines, the tobacco vaccine must be administered to every generation of children. Let's make a commitment to the health of our youth!

Renée Klein is president and chief executive officer of the American Lung Association of the Mountain Pacific.