Today is Kick Butts Day, an annual celebration of youth leadership and activism in the fight against tobacco use.

Sponsored by the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and other public health advocates, the intent is for tobacco companies to stop targeting young people with marketing cigarettes and other tobacco products. Elected leaders are key in the effort to enforce more protections.

Statistics on tobacco use in the United States are grim. The toll is more than 400,000 deaths each year along with a monetary cost of $96 billion in health care bills. In our state alone, tobacco use claims 20,000 lives and costs $5.19 billion in health care bills every year. Although significant progress has been seen in the reducing youth smoking, it's estimated that 19.5 percent of high school students still smoke.

Efforts to enforce tough anti-smoking laws to protect children have been going on in our local area for many years. We recently discovered an article that appeared in the Tamaqua Courier in 1910 whereby two storekeepers were arrested for selling cigarettes and cigarette to boys under the age of 21. The reporter said that a crusade was "waging against the poisonous weeds."

We have been seeing progress, especially in recent years. Just last week the state Department of Health announced that the illegal sales of tobacco products to minors have dropped for the seventh consecutive year in the state. The percentage of tobacco products illegally sold to minors fell from 27.9 percent in 2001 to 6 percent in 2010. The results were gathered through random, unannounced inspections of stores selling tobacco products in 2010. States that do not meet the federally established limits risk losing 40 percent of their federal substance abuse prevention and treatment block grants for the following year.

Secretary of Health Dr. Eli Avila said the improvement is great news for the children of the state since about "90 percent of adult smokers started when they were kids."

Proponents of today's Kick Butts Day feel that even as states struggle with their budgets, legislators should increase tobacco taxes both to prevent kids from smoking and to raise revenue to balance budgets and fund critical programs. They feel smoke-free air laws that apply to all workplaces and public places should be enacted in all states and that tobacco prevention programs should continue being funded.

"On Kick Butts Day, kids are standing up to the tobacco companies, and elected officials should stand with them by supporting proven tobacco prevention measures," said Matthew L. Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. "We know what works to reduce smoking and other tobacco use. Every state should implement these proven solutions, including higher tobacco taxes, well-funded tobacco prevention programs and smoke-free air laws."

Activities were scheduled around the state today. For example, in Chester County, a public reading was planned for the top essays in a Tobacco-Free Youth Writing Contest for seventh and eighth grade students. And in Schuykill Haven, teens planned to unite with college students in a rally against tobacco.

The resources and the effort to educate the public have been in place. The ball is now in the court of individual smokers to make a decision.

By Jim Zbick