La Plata Medical Society

The TWA Flight 800 crash held our country spellbound for years. Two hundred and thirty lives suddenly extinguished! The pictures of the grieving families pulled at all our hearts because of the enormity of the tragedy. Yet the "death equivalent" of three such airline crashes occurs every day from deaths of people who started smoking as children.

Can you picture that? Three TWA 800 crashes every day! Yet every day 3,000 children start smoking, and of those, about 750 ultimately will die of tobacco-related illnesses. This is such a national tragedy that I do not understand why our country’s full energies are not used to stop it.

Why do kids start smoking? They learn by imitation. Imitation of their friends and parents. This is a natural learning method for all of us, but this imitation is deadly.

Why do kids continue smoking? They become addicted to the nicotine, which gives them a pleasant "high." It only takes three cigarettes for a child to become addicted. Nicotine has been shown to be as addictive as heroin. I have seen many adult patients who have lost a lung to cancer or their legs to clogged arteries but have been unable to quit smoking. The quitting rate among adult smokers is so discouraging that these efforts would be much more productive in preventing children from starting.

As I walk down Main Avenue in downtown Durango, I am saddened by the great number of teenagers I see smoking and trying to look "cool." They are well on the way to buying that seat on TWA 800. If a person doesn’t start smoking by the age of 21, he or she will rarely develop into a long-term smoker. The hard-core smoker has been shown to have started before 18 years old, and frequently at age 10, 11 or earlier.

How can Durango parents prevent their children from smoking? First, if you smoke and can’t quit, tell your kids that you wish you could quit but can’t, and it’s best that they never start and get hooked. Smoke outside. Ask your kids to help you quit. If they don’t get the right information at home, they are headed for that ride on TWA 800.

School is the next place where children are exposed to smoking information and education. Even in kindergarten and grade school, there should be health discussions about the present and future dangers of tobacco, both smoking and smokeless. It is never too early to start teaching healthy habits. Frequently, it is in grade school when children first "experiment" with smoking, and if they’re allowed to continue, they’re hooked.

High school is the most dangerous time because all children want to be accepted by their peers and it may be "cool" to smoke with their friends. All teenagers are smarter than adults and information about future cancer or emphysema risks will not impress them. Yet when they hear about decreased athletic stamina, stained fingers, body odors, cigarette burns and early aging, they might stop and listen. Smoking "areas" for high school students should be abolished and teachers should not be allowed to smoke where students can see them.

La Plata County has some excellent "avoid smoking programs" being taught in the schools and coordinated by the Lasso Tobacco Coalition of the San Juan Basin Health Department. These programs are in danger of being canceled because the state of Colorado has stolen the money from the tobacco settlement to reduce the budget deficit.

Next week in this column, I will discuss how bad the situation is and what La Plata County can do to protect our children.

Dr. John N. Withers is a practicing general surgeon in Durango.

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