In New York City, Youth Agree: Smoke-Free is the Way to Be

As we wait for the final vote count on Proposition 29, a measure that would add a $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes in California, we know that price increases are a proven way to bring down smoking rates.  In fact, it is such an effective strategy, that even New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong are supporting the initiative.  Not surprisingly, Big Tobacco has spent almost $48 million in California to “interfere” with the $1 tax measure.  We hope they do not win, but if they do, we will continue our fight to protect youth from smoking.

Price increases on tobacco products are not meant to punish people who smoke, nor are they intended to overtax minorities or the poor who still are more likely to smoke.  Tobacco tax increases save lives, especially our children’s.  Every 10 percent increase in cigarette prices reduces smoking among youth by about 7 percent and total cigarette consumption by about 4 percent.

And we should know.  In New York City, a pack of cigarettes costs $11.90, which includes the highest combined state-local tax rate ($5.85) in the country.  From 2001 to 2007, the City’s teen smoking rate has dropped by more than half, from roughly one out of every six high school students smoking to about one out of every 12.  That was the result of increased taxes, but also bold public health policy such as the comprehensive Smoke-Free Air Act of 2002, and more recently, new legislation to make all NYC Smoke-Free Parks and Beaches smoke-free.  Good sound policy combined with hard hitting media, public education, and the increase of cessation services has brought down New York City’s smoking rates.

Our work is not over.  According to the recent Surgeon General’s Report, a quarter of all high school seniors and a third of all young adults are now smoking.  The progress in reducing tobacco use by youth is slowing dramatically.  We need to continue to invest in tobacco control programs, so progress doesn’t stall.  While smoking among NYC public school students, at 8.5%, is lower than the national average, there are still an estimated 20,000 NYC public high school students who smoke, representing a significant number of teens continually affected by tobacco use.

In New York State alone, Big Tobacco spends $1.1 million each day to market their addictive and deadly product.  Nationally, they spend $12.8 billion a year—more than $35 million a day—to market their products.  Through skillfully placed advertising, they have made it clear that they want our youth to buy their products and become lifelong customers, even if that cuts our kids’ lives short.  When Big Tobacco is fighting for the market share among 12-17 year olds, we know our fight is not over.

On May 31, 2012, the 25th anniversary of World No Tobacco Day, we joined New York City youth at a rally in Washington Square Park to send Big Tobacco a clear message about their insidious marketing: We’ve Seen Enough!  Rather than being the next generation of replacement smokers for Big Tobacco, the youth at our rally have declared, “SmokeFreeWay2Be”.  The NYC Coalition for a Smoke-Free City believes that our youth is the next generation of leaders, not smokers.

I’m encouraged by the work of colleagues across the country who share my conviction. In the Mobile County area of Alabama, Just Breathe has been coordinating efforts for almost 10 years to help school-aged children stay smoke-free and not succumb to tobacco marketing.  Students Working Against Tobacco (S.W.A.T.) is a group of youth advocates who conduct presentations to their peers in schools throughout the Mobile County School District.  In South Carolina, with the support of Smoke Free Horry, all government buildings, restaurants and other public places in North Myrtle Beach, SC will now be smoke-free and smoking in public parks will be limited.

Across the globe, health advocates are taking a stand against Big Tobacco.  I’m encouraged to learn that ASH Wales has called for an end to public sector pension investments in tobacco companies after it learned that Welsh local authorities hold £116 million of their pension funds in the tobacco industry.  In New Zealand, thanks to the Smokefree Auckland campaign, some parks and playgrounds are going smoke-free!  I wholeheartedly support the governments of Australia, New Zealand, Norway and Uruguay as they fight big tobacco industry lawsuits in their national courts.

We will not relent in our fight against Big Tobacco.  And we are fortunate to have great local, national, and international partners.  It is our combined strength that allows us to prevail.  After all, today’s teenagers are not tomorrow’s regular cigarette customer.  They are tomorrow’s leaders.