03/22/07 — County health officials suggest ban on smoking might be coming soon to North Carolina

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County health officials suggest ban on smoking might be coming soon to North Carolina

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on March 22, 2007 1:53 PM

Smoking is a medical emergency in slow motion, a local physician told the Board of Health Wednesday.

Dr. Clark Gaither, who also serves as medical director for Wayne Action Teams for Community Health, or WATCH, spoke to the board about the health effects of smoking.

It's a subject he is familiar with, he said, first because of his training in addiction medicine and secondly, because he's an ex-smoker himself.

"I quit 12 years ago, but if I picked up a cigarette today, I would want a pack. It's that addictive," he said.

Calling it "the Energizer Bunny of deaths" because of the list of diseases it contributes to, Gaither rattled off a litany of statistics related to smoking.

"Every eight seconds, someone dies from tobacco use," he said, with 435,000 deaths per year attributed to smoking, another 100,000 a year connected to secondhand smoke -- an estimated 1.3 billion smokers globally, he said -- 47 percent of men worldwide, 12 percent of all women.

"Seventy percent want to quit, 81 percent have tried to quit at least once ... (but) only about 7 percent attempt to quit and remain smoke-free at the one-year mark."

It might require up to 10 attempts to quit successfully, he said. The success rate goes up with each attempt.

"Gram by gram, there's nothing more addictive than nicotine. You can get them off of heroin, you can get them off of cocaine, you can get them off of alcohol but believe me, the last thing to go is nicotine," he said.

And while there is no cure for addiction, he said it is arrestable.

A new medication recently introduced, Chantix, is having a better than 50 percent success rate, he said.

The reason, he explained, is its ability to improve the withdrawal process.

"There's a receptor in the brain the nicotine attaches to (that) gives you dopamine release. That's what keeps you coming back to smoke," he said. "This drug blocks the attachment of nicotine to that receptor, gives a little dopamine release.

"I have had patients tell me after the second day they didn't want a cigarette."

About the only side effect is nausea, Gaither said. But in clinical trials, only three out of 100 dropped out due to nausea, he noted.

In addition to the economic costs associated with smoking and worker productivity from those who smoke, Gaither raised concerns about children's exposure and the need for smoke-free campuses and restaurants.

Regarding children raised in a smoking home, Gaither called it "tantamount to child abuse."

Smoking versus non-smoking sections in eating establishments are almost a joke, he said, gesturing how closely the two areas are typically connected.

"It's the same air," he said. "We need to change the laws in restaurants, make them smoke-free, make all the schools tobacco-free. If y'all are not pushing to make them smoke-free, you ought to."

He said that should hold true for school campuses as well as hospitals and other public buildings.

Several board members responded to Gaither's suggestions.

"I would like to see us get information about smoke-free campuses for public schools," board member Dr. Orlando Stovall said.

Board member Steve Smith said there is currently a statewide campaign targeting that issue. He said locally there is already a policy about not smoking in schools, but there is an exception at events like athletic games.

"If you go to Carter-Finlay stadium or a college game, you can't smoke," he noted.

The Health Department and other county offices have designated smoking sections. Health Director James Roosen said efforts were made in recent years to provide such an area for employees, preferably away from the entrances the public uses.

"I'd like to see the Health Department set an example by having some movement toward having a smoke-free campus," said Dr. Michael Gooden, another board member.

On Tuesday, a broad ban on smoking in offices, restaurants and public places across North Carolina cleared a House committee on a 9-4 vote. The measure, which now goes to the full House, boiled down to a debate between the rights of private property owners to run their business as they see fit and the duty of government to protect non-smokers from toxic fumes.

"The legislation really restricts what boards can do. But that's changing, and we'll talk more about that at our next meeting," Roosen said.