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Cumberland Matters: Programs combat teen smoking

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Teenagers have their entire lives ahead of them, but too many are still making a choice that can cause a lifetime of negative health consequences – smoking cigarettes.

Even though the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services reports teen smoking levels are at an all-time low, there is always room for improvement.

The Cumberland County Public Health Department and the Cumberland County Schools Healthful Living Division are helping combat teen smoking through awareness and education programs.

Cumberland County joins the state and nation in reduced rates of teen cigarette smoking. According to the state DHHS, middle school smoking rates have dropped to 4.2 percent and high school smoking rates have dropped to 15.5 percent. Looking back to 2003, when the “Tobacco. Reality. Unfiltered.” program was launched by DHHS, middle school smoking has dropped by 55 percent and high school smoking has dropped by 43 percent.

The program faces an uncertain future after the General Assembly eliminated funding for tobacco prevention and cessation programs, but Cumberland County’s agencies are doing their part to end teen smoking.

Karen McLeod, health education coordinator for the Health Department, said she has seen success in preventing smoking, mostly in middle school.

“We go out into the community for tobacco education or awareness,” McLeod said. “A lot of young people will look at the information and say ‘This is a habit I am not interested in and I will never pick it up.’ ”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the smokers who have the most difficult time quitting are the ones who picked up the habit before age 21. The CDC also estimates that 6.4 million of today’s young people will eventually die of tobacco-related diseases.

Every year, about 443,000 Americans die of smoking-related deaths. Ninety percent of lung cancer cases are caused by cigarette smoking. The risks of heart disease or stroke are doubled and the risk of a chronic obstructive lung disease such as emphysema also is increased.

McLeod said the numbers don’t always speak to young people, who seem to think they are many years away from suffering the effects of smoking. She said one approach is for adults to treat teen smokers as their peers.

“When you have a group of teen smokers in a tobacco cessation group, they can confide in each other and build relationships with adults who smoke and also want to quit,” McLeod said. “Instead of pointing the finger at them, adults can say, ‘We know you smoke and we want to help you quit.’”

Another technique to stop or prevent teen smoking is to try the vanity approach, recommended by the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. The vanity approach is to show image-conscious teens the effects smoking has on their skin, teeth and body odor. Smoking causes premature aging and skin wrinkles, especially on the face. It also stains teeth and causes bad breath.

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