Mores of smoking

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(Host) Commentator Madeleine Kunin reflects on smoking, quitting and changing times.

(Kunin) Do you ever conclude that human behavior can’t be changed? Wait a minute. Think about smoking.

A remarkable revolution has occurred since 1976 – the year the number of cigarettes smoked per person in the United States peaked at nearly 2,900. By 2003, that figure dropped 46 percent. Forty-six percent. It’s worth repeating.

Countries where smoke hovers heavily in every restaurant, bar and workplace – such as France and China – have also seen a worldwide decline of 15 percent. Not as dramatic as in the United States, but significant nevertheless.

Closer to home, smoking is on its way out, leading the American Society of Clinical Oncology – all cancer doctors – to call for the elimination of tobacco from the world. Several municipalities, including New York City and Burlington have banned smoking in bars.

When I was growing up, rarely did I see a movie without the hero sitting at the bar with a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. The two went together like peanut butter and jelly. How times have changed.

I recall campaigning in a factory in Rutland, and a woman at a machine had a sign propped up in front of her. It said: “I smoke, I vote.” Public protest against such restrictions has subsided, if not disappeared.

The question of pitting individual rights versus the public good has shifted. The emphasis is on the air we all breath, the health care costs we all pay.

The campaign against smoking has become a global issue. The World Health Organization, WHO, has launched a “Tobacco Free Initiative” approved by 192 countries. It calls for bans on cigarette advertising, higher taxes on cigarettes, and restrictions on smoking in the workplace.

Evidence of the effects of smoking on health continue to rise. Today there are 4.9 million deaths per year related to smoking. That number is expected to reach 10 million by 2020. A study by the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention reveals that a pack of cigarettes cost $7.18 in health care and lost productivity.

The facts are in, the incentives to quit smoking are there, and society is changing as a result. If we can be so successful in reducing smoking, can we change behavior in other areas, like obesity, alcoholism, and physical fitness? Chances are, that we can.

What was once considered almost a necessity – that dangling cigarette – is now an outcast. Change is possible. All we need is a combination of government deterrents and incentives, and a public which is willing to accept them.

This is Madeleine May Kunin.

Madeleine May Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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