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EDITORIAL: California was at the fore of reducing smoking deaths

The Press Democrat - 1/17/2020

Jan. 17--A new report showing a record decline in cancer deaths in the United States is vindication of anti- smoking campaigns that the tobacco industry fought for years to undermine. It's also a reminder of the value of even tougher measures, such as raising the minimum age to buy cigarettes.

According to the American Cancer Society, the death rate from cancer fell 2.2% between 2016 and 2017, the biggest single-year drop ever recorded. The decline was driven largely by a decrease in deaths from lung cancer and was the culmination of a 29% decline in cancer deaths over 25 years.

Doctors attribute those improvements to a nationwide reduction in smoking rates as well as major advances in the treatment of cancer. More patients are surviving, and many diagnosed with late-stage cancers live several years rather than months. "That was very, very uncommon a decade ago," says Dr. Jyoti Patel, a lung cancer expert at Northwestern University.

Such progress seemed like a distant hope in 1988, when Californians passed a ballot initiative establishing a statewide tobacco control program to spread the truth about cigarettes. The program was the first in the nation and was opposed by the tobacco industry, which still was refusing to acknowledge that its products were deadly. The anti-smoking campaign proved to be extraordinarily successful, helping to push the state's smoking rates to the second lowest in the nation today.

California has stayed at the forefront of the fight against smoking. In 2015, Healdsburg became the first city in the state and one of the first in the nation to raise the legal age for buying cigarettes from 18 to 21. It backed down less than a year later under the threat of lawsuits, but city officials had started a movement that couldn't be stopped.

By 2016, more than 100 jurisdictions around the country -- including San Francisco and Santa Clara County -- had raised the age, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a measure lifting the minimum age to 21 for both tobacco and vaping. Eventually, a total of 18 states and the District of Columbia would join California in setting the new limit.

As 2019 drew to a close, President Donald Trump signed legislation increasing the buying age to 21 for cigarettes, cigars and e-cigarettes nationwide. It was an overdue step, designed in part to combat the rising use of e-cigarettes among teenagers. A recent Journal of the American Medicine Association survey found that 28% of high school students reported using nicotine e-cigarettes in the past 30 days.

The e-cigarette industry contends their products are perfectly safe, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Our country has been down this road before, and as the American Cancer Society report demonstrates, advocates for public health need to maintain a strong and powerful campaign shedding light on the truth.

The long battle against smoking has been successful, but as nicotine delivery systems change and its manufacturers wage their marketing campaigns, it's as important as ever to make sure that Americans, particularly teenagers, are educated about the damage they do to their health when they take up smoking or vaping.

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