Tobacco use remains the No. 1 preventable cause of disease and death in the United States, resulting in more than 430,000 deaths a year from personal use and more than 50,000 deaths annually from secondhand smoke exposure.
Additionally, in recent years, the surgeon general determined there is no safe level of exposure. We now know that young children not only are at risk from secondhand smoke exposure, but also thirdhand smoke exposure from the numerous toxic particles, emitted from a cigarette or cigar, that fall and accumulate on common surfaces such as clothes, furniture and carpet.
In older children, secondhand smoke exposure is associated with numerous respiratory illnesses resulting in hospitalizations, an increase in asthma symptoms and increased headaches -- all contributing to increased school absenteeism. Children exposed to second-hand smoke have demonstrated poorer cognition scores and often poorer academic achievement.
More than 90 percent of all adult smokers begin the habit before they graduate from high school. Children and teens start smoking for a variety of reasons, including modeling the behavior they observe in their parents and older siblings, as well as peer pressure.
ONE OF THE MOST effective strategies for prevention is parent modeling of healthy behaviors among young children and establishing an anti-tobacco environment at home. Also, having good communication between parents and children often deters children and teen smoking.
Nonetheless, young teens getting a part- or full-time job in today's economically challenged environment often accept employment opportunities in environments laden with secondhand smoke. Because they are the employees, a clean, smoke-free environment often is not an option, and they feel trapped between a job with a toxic environment or unemployment.
But as a community, we can improve those environs as well. Implementation of smoke-free ordinances has resulted in dramatic, sustained reductions in hospitalizations of children for asthma and adults for heart attacks. Also, research has demonstrated that passage of a smoke-free ordinance does not negatively affect the economic welfare of restaurants and bars, but actually contributes to an increase in economic revenues.
Our neighboring communities already have experienced these healthy advances. One of Augusta/Richmond County's closest neighbors, Columbia County, in recent years successfully adopted a smoke-free ordinance.
In August of last year, a sister city, Savannah, adopted the most comprehensive smoke-free environment legislation in Georgia, essentially closing all the loopholes in the state law by requiring all businesses to become smoke-free. Feedback from bar and business owners has been overwhelmingly positive since the ordinance was implemented last January.
THE SELF-ENFORCING nature of the ordinance resulted in a smooth transition to a smoke-free environment with minimal compliance-related issues. It is anticipated that Chatham County will adopt a similar ordinance this fall. In 1990, Georgia Health Sciences University buildings went smoke-free, and sale of tobacco products was prohibited. Four years ago, the campus strengthened its policy to include outdoor space.
As the established leader in providing health profession education and preparing the future health-care leaders and work force of allied health professionals, dentists, nurses, physicians and biomedical and behavioral scientists, Georgia Health Sciences University strongly encourages healthy settings for people of all ages. This includes a smoke-free environment.
As a community gaining increasing notoriety as a health-care destination, we encourage Augusta's citizens and leaders to come together, agree on what is best for the whole and move forward for health with this simple yet far-reaching effort to ensure smoke-free environments for all.
(The writers are, respectively, the Charles W. Linder Endowed Chair in Pediatrics and the assistant dean of the Southeast Georgia Clinical Campus at Georgia Health Sciences University.)