The master settlement agreement that 46 states and six other U.S. jurisdictions reached with the tobacco companies in 2004 resulted in restrictions on cigarette advertising and marketing, including a ban on advertising and marketing directed at children (hence the demise of Joe Camel), as well as billions of dollars in tobacco company payments to the states. But hat wasn’t the end of it.
“The exposure of marketing in stores is a prime cause for smoking,” said Ellen Reinhard, director of the Tobacco Free Action Coalition of Ulster County (TFAC), which is funded through a grant from the New York State Tobacco Control Program. “We’re educating community groups, organizations and parents about this problem. The tobacco industry spends billions of dollars to pay retailers to display its products and promote price discounts.”
In fact, cigarette ad budgets ballooned from $6.7 billion in 1998 to $11.2 billion in 2001 — a 66 percent increase — and they continue to go up. In response from lobbying by TFAC, some local stores have acted. Price Chopper and Hannaford have covered up their tobacco displays. “People know the cigarettes are there, but they don’t have to be in your face,” said Reinhard. “We did a survey that shows our residents are in favor of this.” (See sidebar.)
According to a 2010 survey conducted on behalf of TFAC by Baruch College, 20 percent of Ulster County residents smoke, four out of five daily. The percentage exceeds that for the surrounding counties. In addition, the rates for people with incomes of less than $30,000 and under age 30 far exceed those for the surrounding region. Latinos are also more likely to smoke, according to the data.
Other survey findings, based on phone interviews with 400 county residents, indicate the public is clued in to the danger of cigarette smoking. Support is growing for more restrictions on smoking.
Statewide, 12.6 percent of high school students have smoked at least one cigarette in the last 30 days, which is how the New York State Tobacco Control Program defines smoking. That is a substantial decline from the 27 percent of 2002 and indicates that anti-smoking efforts among youths are effective.
The state Department of Health’s goal is to reduce the number of high school kids who smoke to just ten percent statewide by 2013. Furthermore, the rate of decline among the state’s high school students exceeds the national average, perhaps due to New York’s highest-in-the-nation cigarette excise tax, its strong clean-indoor-air laws, and its comprehensive tobacco control program.
The Ulster Prevention Council, or UPC, is an initiative funded by the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS). The Ulster County mental health department, the local government recipient of the funding, subcontracts with Family Services to administer the grant.
The grim toll of smoking
Nonetheless, nearly 36,000 children in the state who start smoking every year. A third of them will die prematurely from tobacco-related illness, according to TFAC. In Ulster County, the relative percentage of high school students, from ninth to twelfth grades, who smoke is slightly less: 11.52 percent had smoked in the last 30 days, according to the 2010-11 New York State Youth Development Survey, a county-by-county study produced under the auspices of the New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS).
The percent for eleventh and twelfth graders is higher. Cheryl DePaolo, director of the Ulster Prevention Council, a pilot project of the OASAS designed to fight substance abuse by assisting grass-roots organizations, attributed the small decline of smoking to the number of kids dropping out after eleventh grade. Just under three percent of kids in seventh through twelfth grades used chewing tobacco, a slight increase from previous years, DePaolo said.
Though smoking cigarettes on public school property is prohibited by state law, people are free to light up in many other public places that attract kids. TFAC is working to help municipalities adopt policies banning smoking outdoors; 15 of the country’s 24 municipalities so far done that, according to Reinhard.
Kingston took the lead in 2008 by banning smoking 50 feet from entryways and in city-owned playgrounds. Smoking is also prohibited near ball fields (including the bleachers) and in pavilions near playgrounds, and it has been banned from the grounds and parking lot of the city hall.
TFAC provides signage, including a metal “Young Lungs At Play! This is a tobacco-free zone” sign showing a child on a swing and a slash through a burning cigarette. The group also has produced an anti-smoking brochure, which will be distributed at youth groups and health fairs.
The multi-county volunteer organization was started 20 years ago. In 2001, the coalition was formed, with state funding through the state Tobacco Control Program. The program’s budget of $41 million has been cut 30 percent since 2007.
TFAC’s 2010 budget was $180,000 — it was more than $200,000 in 2002 — and the cuts have caused some slowing in the group’s activities, Reinhard said. Besides the signage, educational flyers and brochure, surveys and advertising, the money pays for the salaries of Reinhard and a part-time employee.
Kids going to pot
The survey data shows that cigarette smoking as a risk to kids is far overshadowed by another habit and activity that threatens kids’ lungs. The survey found that in 2010-11 22.2 percent of high school kids had smoked marijuana in the last 30 days, which is nearly a quarter of all high-schoolers and double the percentage smoking cigarettes. “Marijuana use is going up, while the cigarette smoking rate is going down,” said DePaulo. “Kids are getting the message about cigarettes because there’s so much about tobacco in the press.”
The emphasis on tobacco and lack of information about marijuana might give the impression that pot is not a health hazard. Nothing could be further from the truth, DePaulo said. Because marijuana smoke is held longer within the lungs, “there are different cancers associated with the drug and the damage it does.” Of course, since marijuana is illegal, it’s technically prohibited everywhere. Since its usage significantly exceeds that of cigarettes, however, DePaulo suggested the need for some type of aggressive state campaign about the health risks of marijuana.
Other findings of the Baruch study, based on phone interviews with 400 county residents, indicate the local public is clued in to the danger of cigarette smoking. Support is growing for more restrictions on smoking.
Ninety-one percent of respondents believe second-hand smoke to be harmful. Seventy-eight percent favor covering up cigarette products in stores, 73 percent support a law banning smoking within 50 feet of all building entrances (compared with 67 percent in 2009), 80 percent support restricting or prohibiting smoking at parks, and 78 percent support a ban at beaches (theses number have risen 75 percent and 72 percent respectively since 2009). Fifty-four percent support forbidding the sale of cigarettes at pharmacies, but only 39 percent are against sales at grocery stores.++