According to Cassie Coombs, 90 percent of adult smokers take up their habit by age 18 — so it’s never too early to warn youngsters about the dangers of tobacco usage.
Thus, the Southern Tier Tobacco Awareness Community Partnership (STTAC) was on hand May 14 for a popular children’s gathering: the 22nd-annual Maple City Kiwanis Kids’ Quarter-Miler at Hornell High School.
Accompanying the main event — a race involving 220 young participants from around the Southern Tier — was a Pediatric Health Fair sponsored by St. James Mercy Health with the theme of "Young Lungs at Play — Promoting Tobacco Cessation." Coombs, who serves as STTAC’s coordinator, staffed a booth where she distributed pamphlets on secondhand smoke exposure and asked parents to sign a petition supporting tobacco-free parks. This effort netted "quite a few signatures," she said. Adding to the fun and games for youths were complimentary STTAC-issued Frisbees emblazoned with the words "Tobacco-Free."
STTAC represents a coalition of community-based organizations and individuals in Chemung, Schuyler and Steuben counties. Funded by a grant from the New York State Tobacco Control Program, STTAC promotes healthier communities through tobacco-free living, education and public policy. Its website (www.sttac.org) offers information for people trying to quit smoking; statistics; listings of outdoor tobacco-free venues; resources for children; and details on legislation, the effects of secondhand smoke and the dangers of tobacco advertising.
A big step forward for STTAC’s cause was the passing of the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act of 2003 that prohibits smoking at virtually all indoor workplaces, restaurants, bars, arenas and bingo facilities, schools and colleges, and places of public transportation such as buses and taxicabs. The legislation also limits the amount of designated outdoor smoking areas.
"It’s really gone a long ways to change people’s perceptions," Coombs said of the Clean Indoor Air Act. "Some people can’t even fathom that you used to be able to smoke in hospitals, in airplanes." She added that people who do smoke have become more conscientious toward others: "They’ve made their homes and cars smoke-free."
Coombs said these positive trends are reflected in the following statistics: 14.7 percent of New York state’s high-school students currently smoke, a decrease of 46 percent from the year 2000; 3.8 percent of New York’s middle-school students smoke, a drop of 64 percent from 2000; and from 2003 to 2009 adult smoking in the state dropped by 17 percent, compared to a 6-percent national decline during the same period.
However, there’s still a long way to go. STTAC’s website notes that tobacco use is the No. 1 preventable cause of death, killing more than 400,000 people each year from lung cancer, heart disease and other serious illnesses; and that tobacco companies "spend billions each year to market and promote their addictive and deadly product."
Coombs said STTAC strives to ward off tobacco usage in young people, stating that children are twice a likely as adults to notice and remember retail tobacco advertising and become influenced by it. Even though the legal age for purchasing cigarettes in New York state is 18, "We are seeing age 10, 11 and 12 starting to smoke," she said, adding that STTAC works with local authorities to prevent illegal sales, particularly in convenience stores.
STTAC also focuses on making municipal parks and playgrounds smoke-free, due to the threat of secondhand smoke.
"Outside playing, having fun and exercising — that just doesn’t go together with breathing in all those toxic chemicals," Coombs said.