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Column: Join in Battle Against Secondhand Smoke

Kick Butts Day is Wednesday, March 20. It is an annual day of activism, celebrated in more than 2,000 events around the country, empowering youth to raise awareness about the problems of tobacco use in schools and the community. One of the key messages behind Kick Butts Day is that every day, 5,000 kids try their first cigarette; and another 2,000 kids become regular, daily smokers, one-third of whom will die prematurely as a result.

Last year, Kick Butts Day was celebrated in Alexandria with Mayor Euille and Councilwoman Pepper hanging the first sign in a city-owned bus shelter which reads: For everyone’s health, thank you for not smoking in this bus shelter. Following the ceremony, students from T.C. Williams and a few middle schools fanned out across the city engaging other students and residents in conversations about the harms of smoking.

On Kick Butts Day this year, the Clean and Smoke-Free Air Coalition, in partnership with the Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition of Alexandria and Y-Street, is sponsoring an Operation Storefront Survey, which will engage a number of Alexandria youth in collecting information on how retail stores advertise tobacco products and alcohol.

Recent data reveal many positive trends when it comes to tobacco use among Alexandria high school and middle school students. For example, current cigarette use (14.1 percent) and cigar use (11.7 percent) among high school students are lower than the national rates of 18.1 percent and 13.1 percent respectively. Moreover, over the past 5 years, there has been a major reduction in the percentage of students that tried smoking — down from 34.1 percent in 2007 to 19.1 percent in 2011. Hispanic students registered the biggest reduction from 45 percent to 22.7 percent.

Despite the mostly positive directions, the data reveal a few underlying “pockets” of concern that will likely need attention. For example, the current use rate for Black high school students was 12.7 percent, 2.2 percentage points above the national rate of 10.5 percent; and, with respect to heavy smoking (>10 cigarettes per day), rates for Asian and White students rose 7.7 percent to 11.1 percent and 6.8 percent to 8.2 percent respectively. At the middle school level, Black students registered a significant increase on the “heavy smoking” indicator — from 3.4 percent in 2007 to 17.7 percent in 2011.

While the teen (and adult) smoking rates could certainly be better, the Public Health Commission is focused on a much greater smoking-related concern affecting our young children and youth — exposure to the harmful effects of secondhand smoke.

While many may know that tobacco use is still the leading cause of preventable death and disease in America, most are unaware that exposure to secondhand smoke is the third leading cause of death and disease. Because a child’s body is still growing and their lungs still developing, the chemicals in secondhand smoke are especially dangerous to their health.

The U.S. Surgeon General has declared that there is “no risk free exposure to secondhand smoke; even a brief exposure … can be harmful. More frequent exposure causes disease and premature death in nonsmoking adults and children.”

Unfortunately, there are no local data regarding the extent of secondhand smoke exposure in Alexandria. The American Academy of Pediatrics, however, estimates that about 18 percent of all children and youth between ages 3-19 are regularly exposed in their homes. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control suggests that about 45 percent of all residents in Virginia that live in a multiunit residential facility and do not allow smoking in their homes, still experience secondhand smoke penetration in their apartment on occasion. (This occurs primarily because the smoke seeps through the walls, under the doors, and through shared ventilations systems.) Hence, it is reasonable to conclude that hundreds-to perhaps a few thousand children and adolescents in the city are needlessly exposed to secondhand smoke either occasionally or on a regular basis.

To reduce the level of exposure of our children and youth to secondhand smoke, the commission is seeking City Council’s support for the promotion of comprehensive smoke-free policies in all multiunit residential facilities in the city. More specifically, council is being asked to:

  • Declare that all residents deserve to breathe clean air and live in a smoke-free environment.

  • Declare secondhand smoke, as it drifts from one apartment to another, a “public health risk” and call on owners and landlords to voluntarily adopt comprehensive smoke-free policies for their building(s).

  • Declare that all low-income, uninsured residents will have access to an affordable, effective and comprehensive smoking cessation benefit.

  • Increase the local cigarette tax to generate new revenues to support evidence-based tobacco prevention, cessation and education programs in the city.

The City Council made a major step forward over a year ago on protecting our kids and nonsmokers from secondhand smoke exposure with the placement of smoke-free signs in all city-owned parks, playgrounds and bus shelters. We’re asking them to take another big step forward to close the gaps in secondhand smoke exposure as to where our kids are most vulnerable — in the homes where they live and spend the vast majority of their time.