The number of smokers in St. Lawrence County has dropped eight percent in recent years, but experts are concerned that a 10-year decline among youth might have halted. Local experts say their goal is to stop people from smoking before they start, so they are focusing on keeping young people from lighting a first cigarette. “Ninety percent of current adult smokers started at or before the age of 18,” said St. Lawrence County Tobacco Program Coordinator Ben Todd.
“That’s what we’re after today: preventing kids from starting. Tobacco advertising is the primary cause of youth starting smoking. Studies have shown it,” Todd said.
Todd says that, according to a biannual survey conducted for the state Department of Health, the rate of smoking among high school students is 14.8 percent overall in New York State, while it stands at 16 percent in the county.
The rate of tobacco use among youth in St. Lawrence County has actually declined over the last several years, but the decline seems to have stalled.
“The number that has not changed is ‘susceptibility’ – the likelihood of a young person trying a cigarette.”
So that’s where the emphasis is among the agencies in the county that promote good health.
“If we can get young people not to try, then we have a chance of improving things,” Todd said.
Patty Hogle is Youth Action Coordinator for Reality Check of St. Lawrence County. The group’s slogan is “We are a group of teens who won’t allow the tobacco industry try to manipulate us into smoking.”
She explained that the group is focusing on three initiatives: getting smoking out of movies rated G, PG ,and PG-13 – “the exposure glamorizes smoking,” she says; getting retailers to put their cigarette displays out of sight; and getting tobacco ads out of magazines.
Beth Gero of the Tobacco Cessation Center of Northern New York says that there has been a declining trend in tobacco use in the county over recent years, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control data, except that the most recent data show the rate climbing slightly.
A state survey conducted every two years pegged the county’s smokers at 23.4 percent of the population in 2008, down from 2006, when it was at 25.4 percent. Include users of other tobacco products like chewing tobacco, and the proportions were 27.3 percent in 2008 and 28.3 percent in 2006. Another survey is to be conducted for this year.
Gero, who works with Canton-Potsdam Hospital, Massena Memorial Hospital and Claxton-Hepburn Medical Center in Ogdensburg to inform health professionals about tobacco issues, and who runs tobacco cessation workshops, believes the rate is inching up at least in part because funds for tobacco prevention programs have been harder to come by in the last couple of years.
There has been less money for programs in local schoolsand for things like the nicotine replacement products she gives to people at stop-smoking workshops.
And it’s not just smoking, Gero says.
“Chew is huge in this area,” she says, “especially in middle school and high school. Same with the universities.”
She explains that chewing tobacco and snuff are easier to conceal, and she says more young people are taking it up “especially since smoking has become less socially acceptable.”
Gero says the rate in St. Lawrence County is higher than the overall state rate because smoking is more prevalent among people of lower socio-economic status, which characterizes many people in the county, and because of the availability of cheap tobacco on the Mohawk reservation, “especially in the Massena area, although a woman from Canton told me she drives there to get her cigarettes.
“People can get four to six cartons’ worth of cigarettes in a bag for $15 to $18. They call them ‘loosies.’ Packs of cigarettes go for 89¢. They’re cheap. They’re garbage.”
The consequences of smoking are the bad health they cause.
The American Cancer Society’s “Cancer Burden Profile” for St. Lawrence County notes that, on average, 12 people are diagnosed with cancer, and five people die of cancer, every week in the county.
Not every case of cancer is attributed to tobacco use, but lung and bronchus cancer account for 17.3 percent of all cancer cases, and 30.5 percent of all cancer deaths in the county. Add to that the incidence of asthma, bronchitis and emphysema, much of which is attributable to smoking, and the cost begins to pile up.
And tobacco not for smoking doesn’t free people from the potential for cancer. “Smokeless” tobacco –chewing tobacco, dip, snuff, snus – “causes oral cancer, esophageal cancer, and pancreatic cancer,” and other serious diseases, according to the National Cancer Institute, an arm of the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
Gero says that while the nicotine in tobacco is strongly addictive, and quitting can be a challenge, it is not impossible.
She says that in follow-up surveys of attendees at her workshops, after 12 months, 34 percent say they have not smoked in the previous seven days – not a perfect measure, and not a perfect result, but a result that can be counted as progress.
“I had an 88-year-old woman recently quit. She smoked for 60-plus years, and she’s proud of herself. It’s never too late.”