10/20/2014 02:55 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2014

Sorting Out the 911s

Recently in a parking lot of a grocery store I overheard a couple of people expressing their concerns about Ebola. While I only caught part of the conversation I could not help but to be distracted by the irony that they were both smoking cigarettes.

To me it is clear that more often than not people are afraid of what they do not understand. Seemingly individuals are most comfortable with all those things that are part of their everyday lives -- even if it kills them.

Don't get me wrong, I too understand being frightened by television reports of Ebola. In my survival mode, I have switched channels to the likes of the Flintstones with the hopes I have not seen too many details about this horrifying disease to keep me up all night. I get it -- it's scary. What is most concerning is that there is so little I can do about it.

The exchange I witnessed in the grocery store parking lot made me think what would happen if we had a breaking news for every time someone died from smoking.

Such a suggestion seems excessive despite the far-reaching loss of life.

The World Health Organization reports that the "tobacco epidemic is one of the biggest public health threats the world has ever faced, killing nearly six million people a year."

The loss from cigarette smoking is something we have control over. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that more than 480,000 deaths or about 1,300 deaths daily. Almost a half of a million preventable deaths every year in the United States.

These two smokers in the parking lot understandably are concerned about Ebola impacting their lives yet comforting themselves with the very thing that very likely will kill them.

Yale News reported on one of their studies:

"8 million lives have been saved in the United States as a result of anti-smoking measures that began 50 years ago."

Comparatively speaking that is close to as many people in the whole country of Switzerland.

There is no demystifying the work for prevention. We know just from this study alone 8 million Americans lives have been saved because of the efforts for prevention.

Despite known outcomes of particular risks, we as a society continue to proceed as often familiarity outweighs risk. I wonder how we sort out the "911s" we can have the power to change. While larger forces in science and government are thankfully working on Ebola today, as individuals we can do our part to work towards eliminating premature deaths we actually have some control over. It is not just smoking, as there are several types of risks that intersect our daily lives.

Today we can prevent some cancers and premature deaths by focusing on and addressing diet, physical activity, obesity and environmental risk factors. Education, best practices and policies are the key to prevention, and we can start the process for saving lives and ending premature deaths today. While there is little we as individuals can do about Ebola, there is plenty all of us can do in the work to prevent cancer.