USC anti-smoking effort earns spot at White House ceremony

01/17/2014 12:00 AM

01/16/2014 11:44 PM

When health officials gather Friday at the White House to tout 50 years of progress against cigarette smoking, the higher education representative on the dais will be from the University of South Carolina.

Gene Luna, associate vice president for student affairs, was invited to take part because of its campus lifestyle efforts. The school banned smoking in and around its buildings in 2006, and starting Jan. 1 has banned smoking anywhere on university property.

The invitation to the ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the U.S. surgeon general’s ground-breaking report on smoking stemmed from USC hosting a summit of tobacco-free colleges last year. An adviser to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services attended that summit and was impressed enough to suggest USC be the higher ed representative for Friday’s event, Luna said.

“It is an honor for the university,” Luna said. “It also goes to show the strength of our public health college and having a president (Harris Pastides) with a public health background.”

The 2014 update on the 1964 report also is being released Friday, with another South Carolina connection in the form of contributions from three MUSC researchers — K. Michael Cummings, Anthony Alberg and Graham Warren. The 2014 report highlights the progress made and presents new research on the health consequences of smoking.

Nationally, 42 percent of adults smoked in 1964, and that has been reduced to 18 percent in the most recent statistics. That reduction translates into an estimated 10 million fewer smoking-related deaths in the past 50 years, according to the new report.

In South Carolina, the smoking rate went from 27.8 in 1991 to 21 percent in 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health researchers applaud the drop and regret it hasn’t been greater.

“Despite all that is known about its health consequences, cigarette smoking persists as one of the major global health crises of our time,” said Alberg, associate director for cancer control at the Hollings Cancer Center. “This remains an evolving story, with the final chapter on the scourge of tobacco upon society yet to be written, but let’s hope we don’t have to wait for another 50 years to get to the last chapter.”

The Hollings Cancer Center, one of fewer than 70 National Cancer Institute designated centers in the country, has been one of the leaders in efforts to study the impact of smoking and reduce the smoking rate in the state.

At the USC campus in Columbia, the anti-smoking effort culminated with the outright ban on Jan. 1. The effort began in 2006 when smoking was banned in campus buildings as part of the Healthy Carolina initiative.

“We were looking to see what policies we could change that would encourage healthy habits for everyone on campus,” Luna said. He characterized the ban on smoking inside or within 25 feet of buildings was a student-led initiative. At the time, “we mentioned this would be the first step toward a tobacco-free campus.”

Last year, there was some push-back from smokers at public sessions on the plan to completely ban tobacco on campus, but Luna said supporters tried to win over the opposition with the overwhelming research about the health consequences that has been building since the original surgeon general’s report in 1964.

Luna said the ban went into effect with little fanfare, and few complaints, in the first two weeks of the year. “It’s really not about enforcement, it’s about creating a community norm,” he said.

Luna isn’t sure if he will be asked to speak during the ceremony Friday. He prepared a statement just in case. Regardless, he will be proud to attend “because that means USC’s the model to represent higher education across the country.”

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