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Editorial: Smoke and vapor

The U.S. Surgeon General’s report urging stronger action to reduce the tobacco epidemic comes as no real surprise.

The nation has reached the 50th anniversary of the 1964 landmark surgeon general’s report that launched the anti-smoking movement.

Americans have been told for a half century now that smoking can kill them and most people have taken that message to heart.

Smoking among adults has declined from 42 percent in 1964 to 18 percent today, quite a triumph.

And yet, Surgeon General Borish Lushniak predicts one in 13 children could see their lives shortened by smoking unless the nation takes more aggressive action.

Unfortunately, the message hasn’t been quite as successful among people with lower incomes and education levels, where smoking remains more prevalent.

Putting restrictions on where, when and how much it costs to smoke tobacco have motivated some people to quit the habit.

Public and business anti-smoking laws have made it less and less convenient for smokers to light up and resulted in an environment that encourages more people to quit.

Excise taxes on cigarettes have also provided some incentive, although Oregon’s tax is below the national average. It rose from $1.14 to $1.31 a pack as of Jan. 1, but still lags far behind Washington’s at $3.02 and New York’s — the nation’s highest — at $4.35.

But these measures do little for the most addicted individuals. These folks struggle to quit and go on bearing the burden of increasing taxes and the stigma of changing public opinion.

A little good news on that front is the emphasis on prevention in the Affordable Care Act, which now requires coverage of smoking cessation. Though that coverage is ill-defined and still varies widely from policy to policy, it at least offers some hope the people who struggle daily with this dangerous habit.

There’s good reason for that, as the surgeon general pointed out. Friday’s report added more entries to the official list of smoking-caused diseases, many of them chronic illnesses people struggle with for years. Included are Type 2 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, erectile dysfunction, macular degeneration and birth defects including cleft palat and cleft lip. Also new to the list are two additional cancers — liver and colorectal.

Smoking is costing the nation nearly $300 billion in medical bills, lost productivity and other costs.

Proponents of electronic

cigarettes are latching onto some language within the report calling for the elimination of “combustible tobacco products” as implying a possible measure of support for their products.

These devices deliver a dose of nicotine — the addictive drug in cigarettes — without most of the harmful chemicals in smoke. Instead, their byproduct is touted as a “harmless” water vapor.

Proponents say the surgeon general’s report leaves the door open for electronic cigarettes to stand alongside nicotine patches and gum as a means of weaning smokers off their addiction.

But they have come under increasing scrutiny as their popularity has grown. Some pundits are calling for more rigid controls.

Democratic senators Richard Blumenthal and Dick Durbin Friday posted a jointly authored blog urging the federal government to bring this technology under Food and Drug Administration control.

Of the senators’ greatest concern is the presence of an unregulated gateway for young people to become addicted to yet another nicotine product, just as their involvement with cigarettes has declined.

That should be a concern. The senators cite statistics claiming the percentage of high school students who have used e-cigarettes has more than doubled from 4.7 percent to 10 percent between 2011 and 2012.

“...the truth of the matter is that we don’t really know what’s in these products and what long-term impact they will have on people — young and old — who pick up the habit and potentially become addicted,” they wrote.

Make no mistake, the first order of business for companies selling potentially addictive products is to market them to young, impressional and potentially long-term customers.

It’s surprising that the FDA doesn’t already regulate devices containing nicotine, given its addictive nature and also given the fact that it is ingested. Quality control needs to be considered.

And regardless of whether adults use them for cessation or recreation, it should be illegal to sell them to young people.

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