The work to promote 100% tobacco-free schools in Virginia has gained momentum in recent years. Since 2012, two leadership teams in Southwest Virginia have worked under the direction of the American Lung Association through a grant from the Centers for Disease Control. These team members supported the public school divisions in Carroll, Dickenson, Galax, Grayson, Norton, Patrick, Russell, Smyth, Tazewell and Wise as they adopted 100% tobacco-free policies.
A Brief History of Tobacco Use
The history of tobacco in Virginia can be traced to early use by Native Americans in religious and spiritual ceremonies. The English Settlers of Jamestown quickly discovered the value of the “golden weed” as they exported it to England and other European countries. Demand grew and small tobacco farms blossomed into large plantations. Laborers were needed for tobacco farms and demand for additional land followed. The quest for this new land drove the settlers to expand further into land that later became the states of West Virginia and Kentucky --- all in the quest for area to raise tobacco. From that early beginning, tobacco has dominated Virginia’s economy for over four centuries.
Tobacco has historically been the economic engine for many communities of the Commonwealth through farming, retail, hired laborers, manufacturing and/or the transportation of goods. Easy access to tobacco also ensured its incorporation into daily life of area residents, often times beginning at a very young age. Cigarette production increased significantly in the late 1800's in Virginia and North Carolina wtih the invention of cigarette making machines. Smoking then soared among U.S. service men during World War I as cigarettes were a part of the armed services daily ration. Other events in the early 20th century led to increases of tobacco use - the invention of the safety match, mass marketing campaigns and the acceptabilty of smoking among women.
By 1965, 42.4% of adults in the U.S. were smokers. Young and old alike used tobacco products without fully knowing the associated risks and dangers. In the years following the first Surgeon General's Report on Smoking in 1964, the adult smoking rate steadily began to fall. This landmark report was the first to clearly link smoking with lung cancer, emphysema and heart disease. Since that time, the scientific evidence has continuously documented the health risks associated with the use of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco products. The public health community and its partners have successfully created a shift toward tobacco-free living with effective prevention education, tobacco-free policies and the promotion of smoking cessation resources. In 2012, only 19% of adults in Virginia (and 18.1% adults nationwide) were current smokers. The dramatic decline in smoking since the 1960's has been hailed as one of the greatest public health achievements of the 20th century.
Unfortunately tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death, responsible for over 392,000 deaths per year in the U.S. alone. In Virginia approximately 9000 adults die each year from their own smoking and over 1,160 nonsmoking adults die annually from exposure to secondhand smoke. There are 152,000 Virginia kids alive today who could die early from smoking. Statewide the annual health-care costs from smoking total $2.08 billion. Despite the dangers of tobacco use being well established, new tobacco products are on the market in abundance including electronic cigarettes, bidis, hookah, mini cigars, and dissolvables. These new products can be appealing to young people although little is known about their long-term health effects.
Virginia has a unique history with tobacco and a unique opportunity to work toward a tobacco-free future by creating 100% tobacco-free environments in their pubic schools. Promoting 100% tobacco-free school grounds can be an effective way to ensure that today’s generation of youth will view tobacco use, in any form, as a thing of the past.