Here’s to 20 years of tobacco prevention success—but Oregon’s fight isn’t over yet

Oregonians, we have reasons to celebrate.

First, an anniversary: It’s been 20 years since Oregon voters approved Measure 44, which raised the price of tobacco and dedicated a portion of sales revenue to preventing kids and young people from starting to smoke and to helping smokers quit.

Second, our achievements over the past two decades:

  • Teen smoking rates have dropped dramatically.

    Governor Kate Brown and Karen Girard celebrate 20 years of tobacco prevention in Oregon

  • Tobacco users who want to quit (and nearly two out of three do) continue to have the help and resources they need to succeed.
  • Oregonians are buying half the number of cigarettes they were buying back then.
  • And the Indoor Clean Air Act, which expanded in 2009, has made the air cleaner in nearly every workplace and public space in Oregon, from public schools to hospitals, from parks to restaurants and bars.

This spring, Gov. Kate Brown traveled to several Oregon cities to celebrate the communities, citizens and students whose ongoing efforts are protecting kids and saving lives from tobacco.

Karen is joined by Lillian Shirley, State Public Health Director, and other Oregon Health Authority staff to commemorate 20 years of tobacco prevention at the State Capitol ceremonial room

As Brown recognized Cottage Grove’s Youth Advisory Council at a public celebration, she said, “Knowing that Oregon’s next generation is so passionately engaged and supportive of these important public health issues gives me confidence that this great work will continue to set new goals and rewrite the narrative on tobacco in Oregon.”

Yet these accomplishments are tempered by a sad fact: Tobacco still kills. It remains the No. 1 preventable cause of death and disease in our state. Every year, more than 7,000 Oregon fathers, mothers, daughters and sons die from tobacco-related causes. A few years ago, that number included 69-year-old Bob Main of Bend.

Karen Girard with her father, Bob Main

My dad.

My dad was a high school teacher and outdoorsman who spent 22 years managing public water resources in Central Oregon. He smoked cigarettes from age 15 until about age 40. Then he did what he was supposed to do: He quit.

Thirty years later, when he was nearly 70, my dad was diagnosed with lung cancer common to tobacco users. Even 30 smokefree years were not enough to undo tobacco’s damage.

I had already decided, long before my dad got sick, that I wanted to work in public health. But Oregon’s statewide movement to reduce tobacco’s toll—on the Oregonians who die from using it, and the people who loved them and still miss them—is a personal fight, too.

What will it take to win? Foremost, we can keep working to protect kids and future generations by:

  • Raising the price of tobacco. When the price goes up, fewer kids use it.
  • Restricting the sale of flavored tobacco products and other youth-targeted marketing tactics in retail stores. Flavors mask tobacco’s harsh taste, making it easier to use and easier to become addicted.
  • Protecting Oregon’s Indoor Clean Air Act (ICAA). Protecting access to clean indoor air means saying no to new exemptions to this law, one of the strongest in the country.

Two decades ago, with Measure 44, Oregonians committed to a sustained investment in addressing the tremendous threat that tobacco poses to the health of our people and our state. Our successes so far should inspire us to further reduce tobacco’s devastating impact. They should also motivate us to address similar threats to our collective health, like the widespread availability of cheap sugary drinks—a key factor contributing to chronic diseases including obesity, heart disease and diabetes that affect hundreds of thousands of Oregonians every year.

Oregon Health Authority’s Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention staff shows a timeline of 20 years of tobacco prevention in Oregon

So, let’s take a moment to celebrate.

Then let’s get to work.

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