Smoking remains leading cause of death in county
It’s also the most preventable cause, health officials say.

Lisa DeWolfe quit smoking last February after her third asthma attack.

“I knew I had to stop before it got worse,” said the Hamburg Township resident, who had been a smoker for more than 25 years. She was smoking about one-and-a-half packs a day when she quit “cold turkey.”

On Sunday, she is likely to be joined by an undetermined, but generous, number of county residents for whom quitting smoking is their 2006 New Year’s resolution.

Before she threw her cigarettes away, DeWolfe was among the 19 percent of Livingston County residents who currently smoke. Now, she’s among the 34 percent who say they are former smokers. Although the figure for current smokers compares favorably with the 25 percent state average, smoking is still the No. 1 health issue in the county, say health officials here.

“Smoking causes the most deaths in the county,” said Ted Westmeier, director of the Livingston County Department of Public Health.

Smoking also is the single most preventable cause of death and disease nationwide, according to the Foundation for a Tobaccofree Earth, an anti-smoking organization founded by tobacco king R.J. Reynolds’ grandson, Patrick Reynolds. Statistics compiled by the foundation show that cigarettes cause more deaths than cocaine, auto crashes, AIDS, alcohol, heroin, fire, suicide and homicide combined.

The Livingston County Health Department’s 2001 Community Health Data Book (the most recent) indicates that 19 percent of all deaths in Livingston County are directly related to tobacco use. The next highest cause of death in the county is diet and physical inactivity, at 14 percent. Collectively, the two categories account for one-third of deaths in the county.

Westmeier and County Medical Director Dr. Donald Lawrenchuk are among those leading the charge in the local battle against smoking. Most active in the battle against smoking are organizations including Key Development Center, through its Tobacco-Free Livingston program, the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association.

“The county doesn’t have funding for anti-smoking programs,” Westmeier said. “Other than our general health education programs, we have nothing budgeted.”

At Tobacco-Free Livingston, however, it’s another story. The four-year-old group, jointly with the Livingston County Community Alliance, meets monthly to discuss tobacco issues. The group uses a patchwork of grants to offer smoking cessation classes and sponsor events and programs in the schools to help prevent children from starting to smoke. It also gives awards to smoke-free businesses and food-service establishments.

“We promote tobacco-free living, work to help reduce youth access to tobacco products, help tobacco users quit and remain tobacco-free and advocate to protect county residents from the adverse health effects of tobacco smoke,” said Amy Ruby, who directs the program. “We try to have a really positive message, not to be down on smokers,” Ruby said.

In November, the group commended five area smoke-free restaurants, including the Grand Traverse Pie Co. in Brighton, Colorado Coffee Company (Brighton and Howell), the Purple Mushroom in Howell and Doodles Ice Cream and Treats in Hartland. Tobacco-Free Livingston congratulates smoke-free restaurants on a quarterly basis.

At the Red Robin Restaurant and Bar in Brighton, which received a previous commendation from Smoke-Free Livingston, a lively crowd congregates most afternoons and evenings, despite – or maybe because of – the ban on smoking.

Matt Trisch, 4, sat at the bar on a recent evening, sipping his soft drink, twirling a bit on his bar stool, and watching his brothers, Jake, 11, and Tyler, 9, as they kibitzed with other customers at the bar. Sitting at the bar, they weren’t breaking any laws; they were enjoying a dinner – and age-appropriate soft drinks – with their parents, Brighton residents Lisa and Todd Trisch.

“We come here because it’s smoke-free,” said Todd Trisch. The Trisches, transplanted from Massachusetts, where they could take their children to any of several smoke-free restaurants, are among a growing number of county residents who would rather enjoy their food in a smokeless atmosphere.

“We’re trying to get the word out that we are the only non-smoking bar in Livingston County,” said bartender Aaron Pearsall. Several other restaurants, including China Gourmet in Fowlerville, Waldenwoods Banquet & Conference Center in Hartland and Brunner’s in Howell, have joined the smoke-free restaurant brigade.

And that is one way that the county may eventually be “smoke-free,” said county Commissioner Dennis Dolan, who chairs the county’s Health and Human Services Subcommittee.

“Smoking isn’t as accepted as it once was,” Dolan said. “I’m not against smokers, but the way I see it, majority rules. If there’s a general feeling countywide to ban smoking in certain buildings or areas, I’d be more likely to lean that way.”

Dolan said he believes the tide has turned against smoking and that, although he can’t speak for his fellow commissioners, he is sure his subcommittee will be discussing some kind of “clean air” ordinance with Westmeier and Lawrenchuk in the near future.

“(The commissioners) have a responsibility to the overall community at large … and certainly to their health. I think perhaps you’ll see some kind of resolution by the board as a whole within the next year.” Still, he said, he’d want to know more about the legality of such an action.

Dolan said he also believes state legislators will alter existing legislation exempting bars and restaurants from smoke-free legislation.

One other function of Smoke-Free Livingston is conducting the county’s tobacco compliance checks at county businesses that sell tobacco. In 2004, the groups checks found a disconcerting 78 percent of retailers sold tobacco to minors, contrary to state law. This year, there was improvement in compliance, but 25 percent of those retailers checked sold tobacco to minor decoys, Ruby said. “We are still above the 20 percent or better mandated by the state to qualify for federal funding for substance abuse treatment and prevention programs,” she said.

Lawrenchuk said he is concerned about the high non-compliance among county retailers. “Even 25 percent is an unacceptable figure,” he said. “We need to do something about that.”

Tobacco, he added, is a “100-percent preventable cause of death. Tobacco is an extremely powerful addictive substance … and the tobacco industry is an extremely powerful lobby. I understand some of the difficult issues, including the politics. Still, we definitely need to address smoking in this county.”

Westmeier’s advice to the county board, which chose in 2002 not to pass a law banning smoking in the workplace: “We need to take an integrated approach (that includes) education, cessation programming, restricting youth access and more of an environmental control philosophy.”

Although environmental control – it translates into smoking legislation – could begin with a countywide law mandating smoke-free work places, it must extend to state law, as well, he said. State law currently exempts restaurants and bars from any local smoking bans. “People should lobby their state legislators for a change in state law,” he said.

Meanwhile, Westmeier said, “If you don’t smoke, don’t start. If you do, quit. If that doesn’t work, quit again … and again. Eventually, you will be successful.” For many, the former smoker said, this year’s quit-smoking resolution can be the beginning of a much healthier life.

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