01/23/2014 01:36 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2014

End the Tobacco Epidemic: Enough is Enough -- Together, We Can Save Half a Million Lives Every Year

The facts are sobering: each year almost half a million Americans die from tobacco-related diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease and stroke. And smoking remains the main cause of lung cancer - the #1 cancer killer of men and women. The U.S. must take further steps to end an epidemic that lingers on despite a half century of progress.

Last week, the Surgeon General's report - "The Health Consequences of Smoking - 50 Years of Progress" - spurred discussion about the need to curtail tobacco use in the U.S. Startling statistics from the report, such as the tenfold increase in women's risk of developing lung cancer between 1959 and 2010, show that there are still significant hurdles to overcome. And this week, the American Lung Association's "State of Tobacco Control 2014" report underscores that the battle to reduce tobacco use simply has not been a priority for policymakers. The report, which tracks yearly progress on key tobacco control policies at federal and state levels, assigns grades based on whether the laws on the books are protecting people from the enormous toll tobacco use takes on lives and the economy. And tragically, all but six states have at least one failing grade.

While both of these reports point to strides made in reducing tobacco use, much more needs to be done to save lives. The American Lung Association joined with other leading public health and medical associations in setting three bold goals:
  1. Reduce smoking rates, currently at about 18 percent, to less than 10 percent within 10 years;
  2. Protect all Americans from secondhand smoke within five years; and
  3. Ultimately eliminate the death and disease caused by tobacco use.
Commitment From Leadership is Needed This year, our elected leaders must commit to eliminating tobacco-caused death and disease. Nationally, the Obama Administration needs to:
  • Empower the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to regulate all tobacco products - including cigars and e-cigarettes;
  • Define the comprehensive cessation benefit within the Affordable Care Act so that more Americans can get the help they need to quit smoking;
  • Remove menthol cigarettes from the marketplace. The FDA found menthol cigarettes are more likely to hook new young users and make it harder for smokers to quit; and
  • Increase the federal cigarette tax and tax all tobacco products at a rate equivalent to the cigarette tax rate.
States also need to step up to:
  • Protect their citizens from secondhand smoke. Twenty eight states have comprehensive protections, but only one state has approved a comprehensive smokefree workplace law over the past three years, leaving citizens in 22 states unprotected from the dangers of secondhand smoke;
  • Increase tobacco taxes. Only two states - Massachusetts and Minnesota - approved significant cigarette tax increases in 2013; and
  • Keep kids from starting. Only two states - Alaska and North Dakota - funded their tobacco prevention programs at levels recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last year. In fact, 40 states and the District of Columbia failed to fund tobacco prevention programs at even 50 percent of the CDC level.

Unfortunately, without stronger laws to protect people, the door is left wide open for the tobacco industry to take advantage. Cigarette manufacturers have bought companies that make e-cigarettes, cigars and smokeless tobacco products to grow their empire, increase profits and maintain power over our youth. The Surgeon General's report found that if current trends continue, 5.6 million of today's youth under age 18 will die prematurely during adulthood from their smoking.

What Can You Do to Help?
Only with meaningful policy change can we end the epidemic, but everyone can help!

Demand that ending the epidemic becomes a priority in Washington, D.C., and in your state. Find out what grade your state received in the Lung Association's "State of Tobacco Control 2014" report and sign our pledge to renew your commitment to ending the tobacco epidemic.

The American Lung Association has helped millions quit. If you're a smoker, you can quit. If you've tried before, try again. We support the quitter in you.

Use your social media channels to get the word out to friends and family about your state's grade and share what they can do to help. #MakeTobaccoHistory

Together, we can make tobacco history by ending the epidemic.