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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 19, 2010

Anti-smoking efforts paying off

By Dr. Elizabeth Tam

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Tobacco use is the No. 1 cause of preventable death in Hawai'i, killing more than 1,200 people each year.


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These days when it seems like there is nothing but bad news everywhere you turn, it's encouraging to see one cause that has not only saved lives and money for a decade, but gives us all a reason to celebrate.

I'm talking about the efforts of the Hawai'i Tobacco Prevention and Control Trust Fund, which not only continues to deliver impressive results, but should be a real point of pride for Hawai'i and a hopeful reminder that we really can improve the health of our local residents if we commit, work together, and refuse to give up.

In fact, an argument can be made that Hawai'i's decadelong fight against tobacco use has been one of the state's most effective public health campaigns. Why has it been so successful? The answer is simple and logical. Evidence-based, statewide tobacco-control programs that are comprehensive, sustained and accountable like we have here in Hawai'i have been shown to reduce smoking rates, tobacco-related deaths, and diseases caused by smoking.

The numbers are impressive. Thanks to the efforts in tobacco prevention and control, overall smoking rates in Hawai'i have declined from 21 percent in 2002 to 15.4 percent in 2008 saving more than 14,000 lives.

There are many examples of how tobacco prevention and control directly touches the lives of local residents and their families that are struggling to end their addiction. For example, the Hawai'i Tobacco Quitline, which is funded by the Hawai'i Tobacco Prevention and Control Trust Fund, has provided direct and meaningful help since 2005 to more than 15,000 local residents who want to quit.

Another excellent example is the work being done at the Wai'anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center. In Wai'anae, an estimated 29.7 percent of the adult population a majority of which are Native Hawaiians smokes, the highest rate in the state.

Thanks to sustained funding from the trust fund, the health center has reached out to nearly 2,600 tobacco users and has successfully enrolled 700 local residents in tobacco-cessation programs.

Impressively, 20 percent of the participants were able to stop using tobacco as a result of the program, and remain tobacco-free today.

Yet another example is the work that was done on Kaua'i to help the Filipino community where smoking rates are dangerously high say no to tobacco. Through the Tobacco Education and Assistance Program's "Kick the Nic" campaign, which features culturally sensitive programs in their native languages of Ilocano and Tagalog, dozens of Filipinos of all ages have quit smoking, in some cases forever.

Despite these and other impressive successes, however, 15 percent of Hawai'i's population still smokes. This group is composed of hard-to-reach, high-risk populations, which include young adults between 18 and 34, the poor (earning less than $15,000 annually), the unemployed and those who have little or no education.

Most people are shocked to learn that tobacco use continues to be the No. 1 cause of preventable death in Hawai'i. It kills more than 1,200 people annually.

Equally surprising is the considerable financial cost to the state, which is $643 million annually in direct medical expenses and lost productivity due to tobacco use.

We urge legislators to protect existing funding to Hawai'i's tobacco prevention and control programs. We know every dollar spent saves money and lives. Let's build on a decade of success, and continue our fight to help local residents lead healthy, smoke-free lives.

Dr. Elizabeth Tam is chair of the Hawai'i Tobacco Prevention and Control Trust Fund Advisory Board. She wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.