Twenty-one. That's how old you have to be to smoke in California now, and kudos to Governor Jerry Brown for recently signing off on anti-tobacco legislation that raised the statewide age from 18.
But there's an even bigger reason why the number 21 should resonate with anyone who makes the decision to risk their life by lighting up.
And no, we're not talking about lung cancer.
Twenty-one. Excluding lung cancer, that's the number of fatal diseases the U.S. surgeon general links to smoking. Starting with heart disease, which kills more people in the United States each year than any other illness, the list includes stomach cancer, liver cancer, kidney cancer, pancreatic cancer, colorectal cancer, and breast cancer.
Acute myeloid leukemia.
One of the most widespread misconceptions about tobacco is that it only puts people at risk for lung cancer. Understanding the full scope of health risks that smoking presents is the best way to motivate people of all ages to forgo cigarettes.
For too long, lung cancer has been singled out as the "smoker's disease" when, in fact, it is one of many smoker's diseases. Debunking this misconception and educating our young people about the true magnitude of tobacco's health implications is the best way to reduce the risk of them ever choosing to become a smoker.
In the United States, the peak years for smoking onset are in the 6th and 7th grades, or between the ages of 11 and 13. Among adults who become daily smokers, according to the Institute of Medicine, approximately 90 percent report they began before their 19th birthday.
Former First Lady Nancy Reagan's powerful "Just Say No" campaign hit its mark by focusing on the starting point, a strategy we need to get back to in the anti-smoking movement. Teenagers have always found a way of getting things they weren't legally allowed to purchase, and simply creating roadblocks is a temporary deterrent, not a lasting solution. A 12-year-old at the skate park who wants to show off in front of his buddies isn't going to decide to wait nine years now to legally buy his first cigarette, nor will the 16-year-old girl who's up to a pack-a-day now shake her addiction more easily now just because the law is tougher. They already knew that they weren't "allowed" to smoke. We need to do a better job of explaining why.
Just saying no is easier when you realize the full price of yes.
But theirs isn't the only mindset that needs to be changed in the war against tobacco.
Governor Brown was well intentioned in his recent legislation, but legislation alone can also reinforce a certain "we told you so" mentality that targets the person instead of the problem: Despite his tougher stance against tobacco, Brown also recently vetoed a bill that would have allowed voters to approve the use of tobacco taxes to pay for the health expenses of those with tobacco-related ailments, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Because our country still clings to the cruel, misguided notion that smokers bring about their own illnesses and are therefore less-deserving of proper medical treatment, seriously ill patients are being failed by our health care system while politicians squander billions of dollars in funding that was intended for the treatment of tobacco-related diseases.
Raising the legal smoking age in California is a significant advancement in the effort to control tobacco use among young adults.
Raising awareness about the true health implications, and showing compassion instead of contempt for the millions of Americans struggling with smoking-related diseases, would be even more significant.