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Editorial: Breaking the deadly grip of smoking

It is startling, in some ways, that anyone still smokes. Evidence of the habit’s life-threatening risks is incontrovertible, yet people still light up, and in that fact is crystalline evidence of the power of addiction, the nature of youth and the human mind’s amazing ability to block out inconvenient facts.

These and other mysteries of smoking abound. Fortunately, Roswell Park Cancer Institute is leading a national study that could help to answer some of them and, in that, find new ways of discouraging tobacco use or helping users to quit. It’s another badge of honor for the Buffalo hospital and, potentially, a significant contribution to the national public health.

The first part of the study has already been completed, and it produced some troubling data. In particular, despite an overall decline in smoking, the study showed that almost 28 percent of adults regularly use at least one of a variety of products, including poorly understood e-cigarettes. Even more surprising, 40 percent of respondents reported using at least two tobacco products, most commonly cigarettes and another product, such as e-cigarettes, cigarillos or a hookah.

Among the questions: Why? And regarding e-cigarettes, whose ingredients can be a mystery, why are they popular and what are the long-term effects?

The continuing study will seek to answer such questions by following a broad range of smokers for years, doing for tobacco and related products what previous research has done for critical topics including heart disease and women’s health. It’s a critical contribution to our understanding of a deadly practice.

Thus, there may someday be a better answer regarding the decision to use e-cigarettes. Are they, as some hope and believe, a steppingstone away from tobacco? Or, as their use by many young people suggests, are they a new doorway into a lifetime of nicotine addiction? Or are they both?

These are critical questions, not just for public health but because of the public cost. Tobacco use is considered the leading preventable cause of disease, disability and death in the country.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that cigarettes, alone, account for more than 480,000 premature deaths in the United States each year. It creates human tragedies with economic consequences, sometimes dire, for families and taxpayers.

Those are just some of the reasons that this study is socially important. But it is also beneficial locally that Roswell Park is the lead. The hospital’s profile has risen in recent times based on programs such as its ground-breaking work with a cancer vaccine developed in Cuba. This project stands to raise it further.

The $17.7 million study is funded by the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health. It represents an important, potentially transformational, effort to make further gains against a confounding habit that is known to be lethal but that continues to exact a terrible price on too many people.

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