The anti-smoking movement, near and far

By Emma Deihle

Officer Chris Norris may dress like every other deputy of the Rockbridge County Sheriff’s Office, but his uniform disguises another job he holds within the county: teacher.

One of two student resource officers in the area, Norris teaches a course at Maury River Middle School called “Virginia Rules,” a class that educates minors about how Virginia laws affect them. The course curriculum and materials are provided by the state attorney general’s office and cover topics teens encounter regularly, like alcohol and drug use, smoking and dating violence.

Norris said the program is beneficial because it explains difficult laws to teens early on and allows them to see a different side of law enforcement.

“They get to see a different aspect of law enforcement, as opposed to just seeing us come and arrest someone or pull someone over for speeding,” Norris said. “They can kind of see we’re on a more human level, rather than just police officers.”

The Centers for Disease Control reports that as of 2015, 25.3 percent of all U.S. high school students use tobacco products, yet only 9.3 percent smoke cigarettes. Use of other tobacco products by young people has increased.

Norris is aware of these statistics, but he makes sure to emphasize the tangible health effects of long-term smoking to his students.

“It’s the other cost, as far as our health, which I think is more where we need to guide the education,” Norris said. “It’s not just dollars and cents, but what’s going to happen to (the students) physically.”

Beyond Virginia, other individuals and national organizations are working to keep adolescents from lighting up.

Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights (ANR) in Berkeley, Ca., is one of the nation’s foremost lobbying groups for the rights of those who choose not to smoke and who want to work and live in smoke-free environments. One of their principal goals is to decrease teen smoking.

“Smoke-free environments are an incredibly effective youth and young adult smoking prevention strategy because we’re creating this social norm of no smoking,” said Cynthia Hallett, executive director of ANR.

In addition to youth smoking prevention, Hallett said ANR has worked for four decades to be the voice for people who are still exposed to secondhand smoke in their workplace but are afraid to speak up because they fear losing their jobs. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services finds that secondhand smoke is responsible for more than 7,000 lung cancer deaths annually and increases the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke by 20 to 30 percent.

Hallett (center)

Hallett (center) pictured with New Orleans City Council Members Susan Guidry (left) and LaToya Cantrell (right) at an ANR meeting in NOLA in April.

“Being exposed to a known carcinogen should never be a condition of your employment,” Hallett said. “Being fired just because you’re wanting a safe and healthy workplace is really unfair.”

As of April 4, 24 states are 100 percent smoke-free in non-hospitality workplaces, restaurants and bars, ANR reports. Hallett is proud that nearly 50 percent of states are smoke-free, but she said that means the other half are still in need of protections.

Hallett said the lack of smoke-free workplace laws in various states creates a disparity between types of work. She said white collar employers are more likely to adopt no smoking policies voluntarily, while blue collar or more industrial companies are not as inclined.

One ANR worker worked at a bar in a Las Vegas casino that allows smoking, Hallett said. She experienced the firsthand consequences of exposure to secondhand smoke.

“As a result of her job, doing something she was good at, she was exposed to secondhand smoke. And she ended up with stage four lung cancer.”

Hallett said industries and interest groups that dismiss the findings about the dangers of secondhand smoke as “junk science” are part of a greater scheme to cast doubt.

“It’s their job to create doubt so that you get the public and the media and elected officials debating the doubt rather than looking at the facts,” Hallett said. “They’re trying to create controversy where there’s not and they’re redirecting (attention) away from the health message.”

California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed into law a bill that raises the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21. Brown also signed a directive that bans e-cigarette use in areas where smoking is prohibited. The new legislation will take effect June 9.

Hallett said California’s new regulations are a big win for the anti-smoking initiative. She does not want to overemphasize the victory, though, because she does not want to give lawmakers the impression that the fight is over. To her, there is a lot left to accomplish.

Nonsmokers currently make up more than 80 percent of the U.S. population and Hallett sees this as the key to advancing the anti-smoking movement. She no longer wants nonsmokers to be a silent majority.

“We all need to continue to talk about the importance of protections for public health,” Hallett said. “Everyone truly deserves the right to breathe smoke free air. We all need to speak up for it.”