After helping to "but out" a billion cigarettes over the past three years – enough cigarettes to circle the world twice if placed end to end – the provincial government was a worthy recipient of the recent Tobacco Reduction Achievement Award.
The award was presented last month to Health and Wellness Minister Gene Zwozdesky by the Campaign for a Smoke-free Alberta, a coalition of prominent health organizations that are working collaboratively to reduce the harmful effects of tobacco.
The award recognized the consistent three-year reduction in tobacco use that has led to the consumption of one billion fewer cigarettes since 2007.
This remarkable reduction represents an important milestone in the ongoing effort to reduce the impact of Alberta's leading avoidable cause of premature death.
This milestone marks a turning point for tobacco use in Alberta that reflects a growing emphasis on healthier lifestyles and on improving our quality of life.
The sharp reduction in tobacco use also points to a strong cause-and-effect relationship between effective tobacco control policies and consumption. Indeed, since 2007, the Alberta government has taken the following tobacco reduction measures: * two tobacco tax increases totaling $1.00 per pack of 25 cigarettes; * legislation to make almost all workplaces and public places 100% smoke-free; * prohibiting tobacco retail displays or "power walls"; * banning tobacco sales in pharmacies, healthcare settings and post-secondary institutions; * measures to reduce contraband tobacco; * legislation to recover negligent Medicare costs from the tobacco industry; and * the renewal of the Alberta Tobacco Reduction Strategy.
Based on these combined efforts, there can be no doubt that the Alberta government is sincerely committed to reducing tobacco use and improving public health.
Furthermore it is apparent that the government recognizes the impact of healthy public policy and accepts full responsibility for its role in combating tobacco use.
Children are our future, and unfortunately, they are also the future of tobacco companies. We must not forget that we are competing with the tobacco industry for the hearts and minds and lungs of our young people.
Therefore a top priority has to placed on further measures to keep this predatory industry away from our children.
How serious are the tobacco companies about retaining – and expanding – the youth market?
While the current smoking rate among adults is 18%, the rate among 15- to 19-year-olds is almost comparable at 16%.
Vigorous denials notwithstanding, the tobacco industry continues to aggressively target youth with a variety of marketing strategies including candy flavourings, price discounts, colourful packaging and even "slim" cigarettes which target weight-conscious young females.
The Alberta government needs to maintain its resolve in combating tobacco use with a renewed emphasis on keeping the tobacco industry away from kids.
Given that 80% of smokers begin their addiction as teenagers, the key to reducing tobacco use over the long term is helping kids to remain smoke-free from the start.
The government can and should approve more policy measures to reduce teen smoking including more tax increases, stricter controls on sales to minors, banning flavourings in all tobacco products, and making parks, playgrounds and vehicles smoke-free if kids are present.
Alberta is making good progress but more work needs to be done in order to curb the spread of the tobacco epidemic to future generations.
Gail Foreman Action on Smoking and Health spokesperson Red Deer