“If no one smoked, one in every three cancer deaths in the U.S. would never happen,” said Meg Williams, Tobacco Free Amarillo executive director, citing statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That was just one of many facts Williams shared while speaking to the Amarillo Hospital District recently.
Since 2001, through a partnership with Northwest Texas Hospital and funding from the hospital district, TFA has been charged with eradicating smoking in Amarillo through its five-pronged public health-focused attack using the media, junior high and high school education, cessation, community outreach and evaluation of their efforts.
“(This year) is slated to be the first year where lung cancer is projected to be the most diagnosed type of new cancer in Potter and Randall counties,” Williams said at the meeting.
She said 31,933 Amarillo adults smoke, costing the city $2.017 million a year in medical costs and lost productivity.
Smoking is less convenient now because of workplace rules and eating establishments voluntarily changing their smoking policies, but the number of adult smokers in Amarillo is above the national average.
“Our smoking rates were insanely high; that’s how this program came into being,” Williams said. “I don’t know if that’s because we’re the biggest small town in America or if it’s just a rural aspect, but our adult usage rates right now hover between 24 and 26 percent. Nationally, it’s 16 (percent).
“It’s a cultural phenomenon that happens to be in this city.”
“From other cities that have gone tobacco-free, there’s a been a pretty appreciative decrease in adult smoking rates,” Williams said. “There are more non-smokers than there are smokers; there are more non-smokers that won’t frequent places because they allow smoking.”
TFA has been particularly successful in pushing back the age of first-time usage and educating students in the Amarillo Independent School District, she said.
According to AISD, TFA provides resources to coordinators at all 55 Amarillo campuses.
Measuring efficacy since the inception of programs in 2001, Williams said 90 percent fewer sixth-grade students, 84 percent fewer eighth-graders, 86 percent fewer ninth-graders and 72 percent less 12th-graders report smoking.
“Across the board it’s pretty phenomenal the decrease in tobacco use throughout the grade levels,” Williams said. “The 12 percent (of seniors who admit to smoking) is about 13 percent lower than the national average.”
“We’ve managed to promote a really high perception of harm as far as cigarettes, which is really good,” Williams said. “Perception of harm is important because the higher the perception of harm is for a substance, the more likely you are to see behavior changes or decrease in use of that substance.”
Williams said the group will increase its education about e-cigarettes. Since vaping and e-cigarettes are relatively new, last year was the first year they were able to gauge students’ perception of those alternative forms of smoking. The measured change in perception was greater in high school students than middle school students.
“It is not necessarily the same kids that are using combustible tobacco as vape,” Williams said. “According to the CDC, it tends to be those academically driven kids (who) seem to be the ones trying the vape whereas … people who drink alcohol are smoking the combustible cigarettes.”
Williams said TFA has also been successful at pushing back the age of initiation, which now is about the age of 14.
“When we started this program, sixth grade was the age of initiation for smoking and we’ve been able to push that back to eighth grade,” she said. “If a kid doesn’t start smoking by the time they’re 19 years old, there’s a 90 percent likelihood they never will.”
TFA has partnerships with 18 local community organizations, including offering cessation classes at six locations, Williams said.
Nationwide, $300 billion is spent annually for tobacco-related expenses.
Smoking causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to the CDC. In addition, the CDC website says cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, including more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure.