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Getting serious about kicking smoking habit

The American Cancer Society sponsors the Great American Smokeout as an annual intervention event on the third Thursday of November.

Approximately 34 million American adults still smoke, and tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of disease and premature death in the country. In the latest figures, nearly 14 of every 100 U.S. adults age 18 or older smoke cigarettes. More than 16 million Americans live with a smoking-related disease.

The annual Smokeout event, always held a week before Thanksgiving, used to be a big deal, but in recent years, it has often come and gone without much notice. Maybe that’s because there are fewer smokers, or maybe we have grown weary of trying to convince those who are impacting their own health and ours through secondhand smoke to quit.

The idea for the Great American Smokeout grew from a 1970 event in Randolph, Massachusetts, at which Arthur P. Mullaney asked people to give up cigarettes for a day and donate the money they would have spent on cigarettes to a high school scholarship fund.

In 1974, Lynn R. Smith, editor of the Monticello Times in Minnesota, spearheaded the state’s first D-Day, or Don’t Smoke Day.

The idea caught on, and on Nov. 18, 1976, the California Division of the American Cancer Society successfully persuaded nearly 1 million people to quit for the day.

That California event marked the first official Smokeout, and the American Cancer Society took it nationwide in 1977. Since then, there have been dramatic changes in the way the public views tobacco advertising and tobacco use.

Many public places and work areas are now smoke-free. This protects nonsmokers and supports smokers who want to quit.

Because of the many individuals and groups that have led smoke-free advocacy efforts, there have been significant landmarks in the areas of research, policy and the environment.

One of the most significant occurred 21 years ago when the Master Settlement Agreement was passed, requiring tobacco companies to pay $206 billion to 45 states, including Pennsylvania, by the year 2025 to cover Medicaid costs of treating people who smoke. The MSA agreement also closed the Tobacco Institute and ended cartoon advertising and tobacco billboards.

It is really sad that the number of deaths attributable to smoking continues to pile up year after year, especially since it is preventable. About half of all Americans who keep smoking will die because of it. Each year more than 480,000 people - or about one of five of all deaths in the United States - die from illnesses related to smoking.

Addiction to nicotine in cigarettes is one of the strongest and most deadly a person can have. Quitting is hard. It takes commitment and starts with a plan, often takes more than one attempt and requires a lot of support.

Believe me, I know. I was a pack-a-day smoker from 1957 until I quit for good in 1966. I tried every way known to humankind to quit. I tried the gradual approach - 20 cigarettes, 19 the next day, 18, 17 and so on. When I’d get to about four or five, I’d get a nicotine fit and was so irritable that I would throw up my hands in disgust, light up, inhale deeply and coo warmly - “aaahhhh.” I would not only have walked a mile for a Camel, I would have walked 5, 10 or whatever it took to get my hands on one.

I once quit for more than a year only to start up again on the pretext of being stressed out because of the imminent birth of our second son. Finally, a month later, 42 days after our son was born, on Jan. 31, 1966, at 9:57 p.m., as I exited a smoke-filled political strategy meeting that I was covering as a reporter, I threw the half-pack of Camels into the trash and have not touched a cigarette in the intervening nearly 55 years.

Especially now, there should be added incentive for smokers to quit. COVID-19 is an infectious disease that primarily attacks the lungs. Smoking impairs lung function, making it harder for the body to fight off coronaviruses and other respiratory diseases. Available research suggests that smokers are at higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 outcomes and death.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com