U.S. cigarettes a relative bargain

Two significant recent steps should bolster the anti-tobacco effort. First, the federal cigarette excise tax increased from 39 cents to $1.01 in April 2009. Despite that price increase, U.S. cigarettes are among the most affordable in the world.

Second, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can now regulate the manufacturing and marketing of cigarettes and other tobacco products. The U.S. surgeon general declared tobacco a health hazard in 1964. However, over the next 45 years, the No. 1 preventable cause of death remained virtually the last unregulated consumable U.S. product. The regulation likely will have more impact than the 1971 ban against tobacco advertising on radio and television. It probably will eclipse the industry’s $206 billion settlement with the states in 1998.

The regulation bans the use of the terms “light” and “low tar,” as well as the use of fruit and candy flavorings to make products more palatable to children. Advertising and store displays will be restricted to stark black-and-white text. However, the bigger impact is the disclosure and regulation of the estimated 60 carcinogens and 4,000 toxins emitted by cigarette smoke. The FDA will have the ability to make the products less deadly for current users.

The Congressional Budget Office predicted the law would decrease youth smoking by 11 percent and adult smoking by 2 percent, independent of the effects of higher excise taxes and public smoking restrictions.

A 2009 Gallup poll indicated that more than half of Americans disapproved of the FDA regulation. The reasons for lack of support are unclear. However, even many nonsmokers oppose public smoking bans because they place a higher value on freedom of choice than on combating health risks.

Studies: Tobacco still stinks

Research on tobacco’s effect on health continues to be popular, even though the results rarely surprise.

The surgeon general’s office issued its 30th report on tobacco in December 2010. The 704-page document describes in detail how tobacco damages every organ in the body, resulting in disease and death. It noted that tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemicals, of which hundreds are toxic and at least 70 cause cancer.

Cigarettes alter a smoker’s DNA within 30minutes of the first puff. The immediate genetic damage raises the short-term risk for cancer. Smokers’ arteries stiffen with age twice as fast as those of nonsmokers. Stiff arteries are more prone to blockages that promote stroke, heart attacks and other cardiovascular disease.

A 55-year-old smoker has the same chance of dying in the next 10 years as a 65-year-old nonsmoker. The number of cigarettes smoked dictates how swiftly health-related quality of life deteriorates, even in those who eventually quit the habit.

Pipes and cigars have an impact on health similar to that of cigarettes, especially on lung function. While cigarette smoking has decreased in the past four decades, pipe and cigar smoking have increased in popularity.

More smoking parents are taking it outside

Household smoking bans

Household smoking bans are taking hold. Smoking is now forbidden in half the U.S. households that contain children and adult smokers. That rate was a paltry 14 percent in the early 1990s.

For younger children, mounting research has identified second-hand smoke as the most certain, and avoidable, asthma trigger. The longer children are exposed to second-hand smoke, the more likely they are to develop the condition. Remarkably, parents are no more likely to quit smoking or smoke outdoors after their child has been diagnosed with asthma. However, the bloodstreams of nearly nine out of 10 apartment-dwelling children contain cotinine – which  is a biomarker for cigarette-smoking exposure – regardless of whether their parents smoke because of seepage through walls and shared ventilation.

Parents have a direct impact on whether their children smoke. Parents are most effective when they specifically seek to persuade children not to smoke, do not smoke themselves and impose a smoking ban at home.

For many smoking parents, it was an inconvenience to go outdoors to smoke. Mercifully, it now is becoming a duty.