In the midst of all the focus on the war in Iraq and current moral scandals among some of our political and religious leaders, a different issue was quietly appearing on ballots across the country on Election Day.
Voters in Arizona, Florida, Nevada, Ohio and South Dakota all approved statewide ballot measures that either required smoke-free workplaces, increased state tobacco taxes to fund needs such as health care and early child development programs and/or funded tobacco prevention programs.
Local smoke-free laws also were passed or upheld in communities across the country.
The Children's Defense Fund was disappointed that an initiative was defeated in California that would have used a tobacco tax increase to fund health coverage for all uninsured California children and for tobacco prevention and health care programs in the state. Tobacco companies and other powerful special interest allies spent millions of dollars fighting against these measures, including more than $65 million in California alone.
But the fact that more and more states and communities are passing new laws — which are critical for children's health — should renew our courage to keep fighting against tobacco companies that provide a deadly product costing many thousands of lives every year.
Smoking can harm children before they are born. Along with many birth defects, it is also associated with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, poor lung development, asthma and other negative consequences for a child's health and development. Increasing access to prenatal care is one key to helping address negative behavioral habits that can harm children.
There is good news here: The percentage of women who smoke during pregnancy has declined during the last decade. But in 2002, more than one in 10 women giving birth still reported smoking during pregnancy.
The struggle to stop children and youths from smoking is even fiercer. The nonprofit Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids is at the forefront of the fight to prevent young people from developing dangerous smoking habits, help smokers quit and protect everyone from secondhand smoke. They've studied all the facts about children and smoking and have a long list of compelling reasons why it's important to protect children now.
Here are just a few of the alarming realities:
• Every day, another 1,500 children become daily smokers. This meant, as of Election Day, 464,007 children had become regular smokers in 2006. Of these children and youths, 148,482 will die prematurely from their addiction.
• Altogether, more than 5 million children alive today will die prematurely from smoking-related illnesses. Almost 90 percent of adults who smoke took their first puff at or before the age of 18.
• The tobacco industry spends more than $9.7 billion a year, or more than $26.5 million a day, advertising and marketing its death products.
These statistics are a wake-up call for anyone concerned about children's and the public's health. Every year, the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids sponsors a "Kick Butts Day" to expose and counter the tobacco industry's marketing strategies.
Students of all ages take part in events like youth-led rallies in state capitals, surveys of tobacco advertising in local stores and street activism. Events such as this can make a real difference in teaching young people some of the facts about, and consequences of, tobacco use.
Many organizations provide materials specifically to help parents teach their children about the dangers of smoking. All of us can pay attention to and support more ballot measures like the ones that passed this year.
Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children's Defense Fund and its Action Council.