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Low Utah tobacco use rates are still too high, health experts say

Published: Thursday, Jan. 16 2014 6:20 p.m. MST

FILE - In this July 20, 2006 file photo, a woman smokes a cigarette during a break from work in downtown Chicago. New research published in the New England Journal of Medicine's issue coming out Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, finds that women who smoke today have a much greater risk of dying from lung cancer than they did decades ago compared to those who never smoked. That is partly because they are starting younger and smoking more than women used to. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

Julio Cortez, AP

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah has the lowest tobacco use rates in the nation — something the Utah Department of Health is very proud of, but also something it keeps a close eye on.

"We do a lot of work with lawmakers that makes it harder for kids to start and easier for adults to quit," said Adam Bramwell, spokesman for the state's Tobacco Prevention and Control Program. Legislation, including tighter regulation and higher taxes, as well as advertising, are the most effective ways to keep cigarette use rates continually low, he said.

In the years since 1998, when a statewide campaign was put into action to reduce smoking rates, Bramwell said Utah's youths have benefited the most. But specific programs have also been implemented to target populations where smoking rates are disparate.

One such program involves the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, where a large portion of clients being treated for other addictions or mental illness also smoke.

"There have been major changes to the culture and to a system that has been around for a long time," said Dave Felt, manager of a program called Recovery Plus, an initiative that promotes health and wellness in people with mental illness and/or substance abuse throughout Utah.

He said the goal is to make all treatment facilities in the state tobacco-free.

"If we could successfully implement this, we would be close to impacting 20 percent of the smokers in the state," Felt said, adding that tobacco use often goes hand-in-hand with other substance abuse, and up to 80 percent of people with mental illness also use tobacco.

The division has already seen success treating smoking as an addiction by cutting it out altogether.

At the Promise of Women and Families North and South programs in Utah County, work and classroom breaks have been decreased to less than five minutes, and, instead of calling them "smoke breaks," exercise or relaxation techniques are often encouraged. No smoking is allowed on the premises or at any time that a person is involved in treatment, Felt said.

"We're changing the culture to one that encourages not smoking instead of turning a blind eye to it," he said. Recognizing that smoking tobacco is "a significant addiction" and treating it that way, he said, helps people quit their other dependencies as well.

And the addiction potential of tobacco is huge, said Glen Hanson, director of the Utah Addiction Center, a University of Utah professor of pharmacology and senior adviser for the National Institute on Drug Abuse for the National Institutes of Health. He said the factors of nicotine and tobacco addiction "satisfy all the criteria for a disease" and should be treated as such.

"Tobacco companies did everything they could to derail that way of thinking," Hanson said. "It delayed our response for decades, and, in the process, many people died and suffered a great deal."

As a leading cause of preventable death, disease and disability in Utah, the reduction of tobacco use remains an important public health priority. In addition to contributing to cancer, heart disease and respiratory diseases, tobacco use causes or worsens most chronic diseases and can lead to death, according to the health department. Survey data show that about 200,000 Utahns smoke.

Since the U.S. surgeon general issued its first report on smoking and health 50 years ago in January 1964, the health industry has made strides in the treatment of tobacco use and addiction. A recent essay in the Journal of the American Medical Association estimates that 8 million Americans have avoided premature death as a result of tobacco control efforts implemented as a result of the report.

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