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Moose: Great American Smokeout: An opportunity for everyone to act

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When we hear about the Great American Smokeout each year (coming up on Nov. 20), we tend to think of it as a day targeted only toward smokers. The non-smokers of the world may use it as an opportunity to apply some extra quitting pressure to the smokers in their lives, but most who don’t smoke don’t pay much attention.

But we all have a stake in smoking cessation – as individuals and communities, smokers and non-smokers alike. The Great American Smokeout should motivate all of us to act.

Of the roughly 20 percent of Americans who smoke, more than 70 percent of them say they want to quit. Knowing that so many people want to put smoking behind them is very encouraging, and it tells us the effort to quit ourselves or help others quit is well worth the investment. If 70 percent of smokers would quit, this would improve the health and longevity of millions of people and save billions of dollars annually.

Let’s first look at the issue from a health perspective. An estimated 23,160 Minnesotans will be diagnosed with cancer in 2008, and 9,100 Minnesotans will die from the disease. Tobacco use accounts for at least 30 percent of all cancer deaths and for nearly one in five deaths overall. Lung cancer – the leading cause of cancer deaths – is attributable to smoking in more than 80 percent of all cases.

If you are a smoker who wants to stop, you should know that there are new, more effective smoking cessation treatments available to help increase your chances of quitting. Perhaps you have unsuccessfully tried patches, gum, or some other quitting method in the past. Do not let this discourage you. New medications such as Chantix have proven very successful, especially in combination with counseling. Talk to your doctor to help find the right approach for you.

From a monetary perspective, everyone has a lot to gain from smokers who quit. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) estimate that smoking costs $75.5 billion annually in direct health care expenses alone. These health care costs are spread to smokers and non-smokers alike. As patients and health insurance customers, we all pay. Employers also pay a high price, as the average smoker misses more workdays and has higher medical expenditures than non-smokers.

Again, this points to quitting and helping others quit as a wise investment. Unfortunately, some insurance plans do not cover smoking cessation methods. If your current plan does not cover smoking cessation medications and counseling, I urge you to talk to your employer. According to the CDCP, smoking cessation benefits pay for themselves in only three years.

Finally, as a tribal health professional, I must look at smoking cessation from a tribal perspective. In many tribal cultures, tobacco or asema (sacred tobacco in Ojibwe) is a very important symbol or instrument in ceremonies or spirituality practices. Many tribal people utilize tobacco or asema in ceremonies to assist them in prayer or communication with the Great Spirit.

However, traditional forms of tobacco use may have little to no impact on the health of tribal people. For instance, we can build a fire and put tobacco into the flames – smoking certainly isn’t required. Unfortunately, non-traditional forms or commercial use or abuse of tobacco has significant negative consequences to the health of the user. Therefore, smoking cessation programs will continue to target non-traditional forms of tobacco use, while respecting the balance of traditional forms of tobacco use in ceremonies and tribal spirituality.

No matter what we believe personally, there is so much to gain as a community from helping smokers quit and preventing young people from starting. We are saving lives. We are protecting children and non-smokers from the dangers of secondhand smoke. We are saving ourselves money.

If we all take action – from talking to our doctors about quitting to making sure our employers cover cessation methods – we are setting a healthier tone for the future.

Sam Moose is the Commissioner of Health and Human Services for the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. All statistics are from the American Cancer Society unless otherwise noted.