Kids and tobacco: Good news, bad news

The News TribuneApril 3, 2014 

Smoking bans get rapid, positive health results, researchers say.

PAT WELLENBACK/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

There’s new cause to have hope — and despair — for the health of America’s children.

Let’s start with the hope: Researchers writing in the Lancet found that smoking bans get rapid, positive health results for kids. Most important, bans have been linked with 10 percent reductions in premature births and children’s hospital visits for asthma — in about a year after a ban goes into effect.

Looked at another way, if smoking bans were in effect nationwide, nearly 50,000 premature births could be prevented each year.

Smoke-free legislation — such as this state’s comprehensive ban on smoking in public places — is important for adults’ health, but even more so for fetuses and children because their developing lungs are so much more vulnerable to the effects of secondhand smoke. Fetuses exposed to secondhand smoke are more likely to be born prematurely and underweight. Young children are more likely to suffer long-term lung-related conditions such as asthma,

Unfortunately, only about 16 percent of the world’s population is protected by smoking bans. More restrictions could go a long way globally toward reducing the 15 million premature births and 600,000 deaths each year due to secondhand smoke.

Now for the despair. While we’re doing a better job of protecting children from adults’ smoking habits, we’re falling behind in preventing teenagers from becoming adult smokers. According to the state Department of Health, the percentage of retailers illegally selling tobacco to minors in Washington remains disturbingly high — almost 14.8 percent in 2013 compared to 15.6 percent in 2012

South Sound counties are doing even worse than the state average. In 2013, 16.3 percent of 92 Pierce County retailers sold tobacco to undercover minors trying to buy cigarettes. Rates in Thurston and Kitsap counties were outrageously high: 26.7 percent and 39.3 percent, respectively.

Part of the problem could be related to the scarcity of tobacco-prevention money going to county health departments anymore. The state used to give out about $28 million a year, mostly from cigarette taxes and the tobacco manufacturers’ settlement. But that revenue is being spent elsewhere now.

If the state’s rate of illegal sales to minors goes over 20 percent, Washington stands to lose about $13.5 million a year in federal tobacco-prevention funds.

Making it hard for teens to buy tobacco products is important because most people who get addicted start smoking before age 18. Retailers who sell cigarettes to minors — putting profits before children’s health — are helping create the next generation of tobacco addicts and adding to the nation’s health care bill.

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