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Viewpoint: Time for Hawaii teens to ‘kick butts’

March 21, 2014 - 12:05am

Every day more than 1,200 Americans die from smoking-related causes — and for each of these deaths, at least two youngsters become regular smokers. In Hawaii, about 1,100 people die every year from smoking.

Youths younger than 18 are more likely than those in any other age group to start using tobacco. Of the 42 million Americans who smoke, 90 percent of them had their first cigarette by the age of 18, according to a new report from the U.S. Surgeon General.

Unfortunately, many of these now otherwise healthy youths are setting themselves up for serious health challenges in the future. In Hawaii, about 18,000 high school students report smoking or using smokeless or spit tobacco.

That’s why the United Health Foundation is once again sponsoring “Kick Butts Day” on March 19 – a day devoted to empowering the youth in Hawaii and across the United States to be advocates for their own health. As a physician, I have seen too many people who suffer the serious health problems that result from their addiction to tobacco, including lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and other deadly diseases. So it’s critically important to raise awareness about the dangers of smoking among youth in our state and across the country.

Kick Butts Day is a perfect time to talk to your children about the dangers of tobacco use and how tobacco marketing appears to make smoking appear acceptable and appealing when in fact it’s addictive and deadly.

Although overall smoking rates in Hawaii have declined in recent years, new products geared toward young smokers are creating new challenges. For example, the newest smokeless products dissolve like mints and take away the undesirable need to spit, making them appealing to kids who want to hide tobacco use. New cigarette-sized cigars use candy or fruit flavorings that are attractive to kids. And perhaps most troubling are the new e-cigarettes, which come in bright colors and various candy flavors.

A recent study found that the use of e-cigarettes doubled among middle and high school students between 2011 and 2012, and kids who used e-cigarettes were more likely to smoke real cigarettes and less likely to quit than those who did not use the devices.

Hawaii is making some progress to curb the use of tobacco products to minors. In particular, last year the State Legislature passed a bill to prohibit the sale of electronic smoking devices to minors under the age of 18. And on July 1 of this year, the Big Island will become the first county in the state to ban the sale of tobacco products to anyone younger than 21. However, these efforts can only go so far.

Parents are key to helping prevent and stop youth tobacco use. Be on the lookout for warning signs of tobacco use, such as friends who use tobacco products, the smell of smoke in hair or clothes, kids who start to use mouthwash or breath mints more frequently or suddenly make excuses to go outside. And set a good example. If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do smoke, try to quit. Don’t smoke in front of your kids, and whether you smoke or not, make sure your home and car are smoke-free.

The goal of Kick Butts Day is to create a tobacco-free generation, so we need to take action now. Tobacco is taking a devastating toll on our youth. It’s time to face the dangers of youth tobacco use and help our kids truly kick butts.

Dr. Ron Fujimoto is chief medical officer for UnitedHealthcare Community Plan Hawaii.

Viewpoint articles are the opinion of the writer and not necessarily the opinion of West Hawaii Today.

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