Fifty years ago this January, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a report on smoking and health that rattled our nation to its core. It alerted us to the deadly consequences of smoking and clearly established it as a cause for lung cancer. Lillian ShirleyThis was an opening salvo in the war on tobacco, but half a century later, tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States and Oregon.

Oregon has made enormous progress in the fight against tobacco since 1964, yet it is still the source of heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and several cancers. Every year 7,000 people in Oregon — roughly the population of Milton-Freewater — die prematurely from tobacco use. For every death another 20 people suffer from a tobacco-related illness or disability. Each year, tobacco costs Oregonians $2.5 billion in direct costs such as medical expenditures and indirect costs such as lost wages due to premature death.

But in spite of those tragic numbers, we still have much to celebrate. Roughly three out of four Oregonians who smoke want to quit. Oregon’s Tobacco Quit Line provides coaching and nicotine replacement therapy support to Oregonians who want to kick the addiction. In 2013, the Oregon Quit Line helped more than 8,500 people.

Today, people in Oregon live, work, play and learn in tobacco-free buildings, workplaces and public spaces. These smoke-free environments encourage tobacco users to quit, protect people from secondhand smoke and model tobacco-free living for Oregon’s youth.

But we cannot declare victory just yet. In Oregon, the tobacco industry spends about $137 million every year aggressively and intentionally marketing its deadly product to youth, people struggling to get by financially and people living with mental illness. The result is unacceptably high smoking rates in all of these groups.

Tobacco companies refer to our children as “replacement smokers” and produce candy- and fruit-flavored tobacco products to entice youth. Approximately 90 percent of smokers start before the age of 18. According to “The Health Consequences of Smoking — 50 Years of Progress: A Report of the Surgeon General 2014,” 68,000 of Oregon’s kids today will die prematurely from smoking; that’s about as many people as reside in Klamath County right now.

There are proven ways to reduce smoking, especially among youth, such as expanding clean-air rules, keeping tobacco out of the hands of kids, raising the price of tobacco and public education campaigns. By doing what we know works, our state can cut smoking rates to protect all Oregonians from secondhand smoke and, ultimately, eliminate the premature death and disease caused by tobacco. It doesn’t have to take another 50 years to end the tobacco epidemic for good.

Lillian Shirley, BSN, MPH, MPA, is the director of the Oregon Health Authority’s Public Health Division.

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