The excitement of a new school year is buzzing around us, along with anxiety about new challenges posed by the more transmissible Delta coronavirus variant. This means public health will continue to be a critical issue nationwide and in our region as we begin welcoming our college students back into our communities and our youth back to school.
Reducing tobacco use and exposure to secondhand smoke and aerosols emitting from e-cigarette use is a critical — but often overlooked — step toward making our lungs healthier and reducing the likelihood of catching the coronavirus and having severe COVID-19 symptoms. Tobacco use affects every organ of the body, including the immune system.
It is why people who smoke are at high risk of getting coronavirus and developing severe cases.
While the rate of smoking in New York has decreased significantly over the past 20 years, many rural counties continue to have high smoking rates. Based on the newly released 2018 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System data, Otsego County’s smoking rate is 16.5%, above the state’s average of 12.8%. This high smoking rate and the current increase in COVID cases in Otsego county means reducing tobacco use now is imperative.
Since 99% of adult smokers started before age 26, a key to reducing tobacco use and improving public health is preventing youth from ever starting. While youth use of cigarettes has significantly decreased, a less understood, but significant threat to our local youths’ health has been the explosion of e-cigarette use. In 2018, 36.7% of high school seniors in New York indicated use of e-cigarettes.
E-cigarette use became so prominent that in 2020 the U.S. Surgeon declared vaping among youth an epidemic. Reducing youth’s use of all forms of tobacco is essential to reducing tobacco-related illnesses and deaths.
To help prevent middle- and highschool youth in Otsego County from starting tobacco use, Tobacco Free Communities: Delaware, Otsego & Schoharie offers a Reality Check program for youth ages 13–18 to join. RC youth become leaders in their communities, developing events and activities that educate their peers and communities on the tobacco industry’s manipulative and deceptive marketing tactics used to hook new generations on their products. They meet with their state legislators to apprise them of their work, network with RC youth statewide, receive service credits for their volunteer hours, and can win awards for their leadership.
TFC-DOS also works with local colleges who wish to adopt a tobacco-free campus policy. More than 500 college campuses in New York have become smoke- or tobacco-free. Consider some of the important benefits of making campuses tobacco-free:
• Reduces exposure to secondhand smoke which is classified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a Class A carcinogen, the same as asbestos;
• Creates an environment that supports a tobacco-free lifestyle, encouraging current smokers to quit and preventing youth from starting what is often a lifelong addiction;
• Reduces staff time spent on maintenance, including picking up cigarette butts and e-cigarette waste;
Youth and community members can partner with TFC-DOS to improve Otsego County’s public health and build support for the tobacco-free norm.
Contact Tobacco Free Communities, Chris Bradley at Christopher.Bradley@sphp.com for more information about the Reality Check youth program, and Jennifer Hill at JenniferHill003@sphp.com for more information on creating tobacco-free college campuses.