I?can comfortably say that they have really heard the message,” said county legislator and GIAC director Leslyn McBean-Clairborne earlier this week about anti-smoking education and annual Kick Butts Day programming. “I hear kids say: ‘I will never smoke!’ or ‘They really shouldn’t be doing that.’”?
But hearing anti-smoking messaging is only part of multi-front war against tobacco in Tompkins County. Ted Schiele, who coordinates Tobacco-free Tompkins for the county’s health department, wants to “change the norms” around cigarette smoking, to make smoking less acceptable and less prevalent. Changed norms, Schiele explains, means fewer places to smoke, fewer quitters who pick up smoking again, and children who never take up the habit due to education on the dangers of smoking and protections from tobacco marketing.
Preventing teens from ever starting smoking in the first place is possibly the most effective tactic in any long-term smoking reduction strategy. Most adult smokers began smoking in their teens and in New York, the average age at that first cigarette is just 13. Studies have shown that the older a person is when he/she first tries smoking, the less likely it is that the person is to become addicted to smoking.?
According to the most recent smoking survey conducted by the state, 14 percent of adults in Tompkins County smoke cigarettes. That’s around 14,500 people whose sweaters smell like ashtrays.?
That’s 14,500 people who get jittery at long work meetings, puffing away in their cars and surreptitiously behind bushes or at the corners of office buildings (even in the cold), and who spend as much as $10, even $20 a day on an addictive substance that when inhaled as smoke causes immediate physical damage and, over time, life-threatening and painful diseases including circulation problems, cancer and emphysema. If Tompkins County smokers are like their peers nationally, 10,500 of the 14,500 wish they could quit.
?“That’s low,” Schiele said last week of the 14 percent figure.?
Schiele himself was addicted to cigarettes for 20 years, but quit in 1990 when his employer then (this paper) changed buildings. “I decided I would have a nonsmoking office, because I knew I needed to quit,” Schiele remembers. It took about six months for him to totally kick the habit and become smoke-free. “I’m so glad I quit,” he said.?
This May, Tobacco-free Tompkins unveiled a new marketing campaign, under a statewide umbrella, called Seen Enough Tobacco, focused on highlighting how much money tobacco companies spend on in-store marketing and promotion—a staggering $500,000 a day in New York State. In 2012, the industry spent $9.6 billion on advertising and promotion nationwide. In 2014, 85 percent of high school students admitted to noticing that promotion. And noticing equals being influenced, Schiele points out.?
The Seen Enough Tobacco social media shares and online videos have had tens of thoussands of views so far. The campaign is also running public service messages in local papers and distributing colorfully illustrated books and pamphlets ? around the country.?
“We’re trying to undo everything the industry has done in the past 65-70 years, from the introduction of the Marlboro Man—year zero,” Schiele said.
The county legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee, chaired by McBean-Clairborne, this July began the “information gathering” phase of deliberations on what else they could do to fight tobacco addiction. It’s a comprehensive approach, a suite of regulations under consideration, that include the possibility of raising the minimum age for purchasing tobacco from 18 to 21 and requiring tobacco retailers to hold a local license. Local licensure, Schiele said, could lead to control over the density and location of cigarette stores.?
?“It’s not just about raising the age and enacting new laws,” McBean-Clairborne explained, “but how we look at it in terms of a bigger campaign. What have other counties done? Looking at other municipalities so we can have the most informed discussion.”
The committee will convene again in November to continue deliberations.?
Cornell University and Ithaca College are now debating whether or not to become tobacco-free campuses, seeking to join the nearly half of the colleges in the state that are already tobacco-free, including nearby SUNY Cortland.?
Schiele said it’s important that anti-smoking regulations be anti-smoking, not anti-smoker. But to keep smoke out of public places, he said in September, would be the “gold standard.”
“Some may feel that smoking is their right,” Schiele said. “But it’s also an addiction and it impacts everybody.” ?