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Another Voice: Smoking should be declared a public health emergency

By Andrew Hyland

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s recent statement urging New Yorkers to stop using vaping products was both striking and justified. The bizarre lung illnesses that prompted warnings from the governor, the state Department of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have claimed at least six lives within a few weeks, affecting several hundred nationwide.

As head of tobacco control at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, director of the New York State Smokers’ Quitline, and researcher who has spent 25 years working to reduce the deadly burdens of tobacco products, I applaud the governor for taking life-saving action to address this public health problem.

With a fast-paced emergency unfolding before our eyes, the response from our state leaders was bold, unprecedented and appropriate.

As we address this crisis, let’s not lose sight of a slower but wider-reaching public health emergency that’s been unfolding for decades – the cigarette epidemic. Cigarette smoking kills 750 New Yorkers every day, and cigarettes are responsible for 30 percent of all cancer deaths.

The governor has showed a deep commitment to cancer prevention and public health. His leadership has made New York a model for other states, with a robust public education campaign, comprehensive resources to help people quit using tobacco and, most recently, a law raising the age for purchase of any tobacco product, including e-cigarettes, to 21. These investments are working, but it’s been slow progress over decades.

Now is the right time to ask: Why not treat cigarette smoking as the public health emergency that it is? Warning New Yorkers of the apparent dangers that can come with vaping was the right move, and a logical next step is to issue similar guidance urging cigarette smokers to stop smoking. This single action could be more effective than all combined efforts to date to reduce the disease burden caused by tobacco.

To those now smoking cigarettes who are willing to be part of this powerful movement: We know it won’t be easy, but we’re here to help. Steps like talking to your doctor, calling the New York State Smokers’ Quitline and using over the counter medications have helped millions of people to quit smoking.

Cuomo led the nation in urging New Yorkers to stop vaping, at least until we better understand these illnesses. By adding similar guidance urging New Yorkers to stop smoking cigarettes, whose deadly impacts are so clearly documented, he would position New York State to effect a dramatic public health transformation and save thousands of lives.

Andrew Hyland, Ph.D., is chairman of the Department of Health Behavior at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center.

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