By Carla Williams
Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1965, Congress took one of the most important steps toward improving public health in our country. By requiring the tobacco industry to include labels on cigarette packs stating the hazards of smoking, the government helped ensure consumers were informed about the dangers of cigarettes.
Yet, a half century later, in the face of indisputable evidence and widespread knowledge that smoking causes health problems, nearly 18 percent of adults in this country smoke, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Here in the District, the rate is slightly higher at about 19 percent of adults.
However, the burdens of tobacco use and related illnesses are not evenly distributed. In the District, smoking rates in wards 1, 2, 3 and 4 hover around 10 percent or less. In wards 5 and 7, greater than 20 percent of residents smoke and nearly 30 percent of Ward 8 residents use tobacco, according to Department of Health data.
The health consequences of disparities in smoking rates can be seen in higher rate of cancer deaths among African Americans. In particular, lung cancer kills more African Americans than any other type of cancer.
There is no doubt that we have made progress in the past 50 years. The smoking rate of adults has been cut by more than half.
Despite that we are moving in the right direction, smoking remains a significant public health danger. Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the country, taking the lives of approximately 800 Washingtonians and 480,000 Americans each year, according to CDC data. Smoking harms nearly every organ of the body and costs our country as much as $332.5 billion in medical costs and lost productivity.
Most people know smoking is harmful, but we still see office workers, bar patrons and students congregating outside buildings to smoke.
There is a simple and unfortunate reason people continue to smoke in the face of all the information and warnings. Anyone who has tried — or seen a loved one try — to quit smoking understands how difficult it can be to quit. Nicotine is among the most addictive substances on the planet, with some research suggesting it is as addictive as heroin.
Just knowing about the dangers of smoking, therefore, isn’t always enough. In fact, most smokers want to quit. According to some polling, as much as 85 percent of smokers have tried to give up smoking.
Because of this, our priority should go beyond just informing people of the dangers of smoking, as important as that is. The aim should be getting to the next stage and helping people who want to quit actually quit.
This is why the D.C. Council recently created “DC Calls it Quits Week,” going on now in the District. The week-long campaign has united more than 40 community and health organizations, businesses and public agencies. Throughout the week, leading partners of the campaign have offered tips and information to D.C. residents intended to help them give up cigarettes once and for all.
It is no accident that the campaign is made up of so many partners. One of the most effective methods for quitting is partnership — getting the support of friends, colleagues, neighbors and loved ones. Research has shown that smokers who get help are much more likely to see success when they try to quit than those who act alone.
The support of friends, families, fellow students or coworkers and resources such as counseling, nicotine-replacement therapies and medicines can help make it easier to quit.
Quitting may be hard, but it is not impossible. Countless former smokers who are living healthier lives and feeling better each day can attest to this.
We hope every smoker in the District pursues the help he or she needs to “call it quits.”
Carla Williams is an associate professor of medicine at Howard University and interim director of the Howard University Cancer Center.