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Keep pressure on smokers

It seems impossible there once was a time when smoking was glamorous and, in some quarters, nonsmokers were treated as outcasts. But "big tobacco's" publicity campaign half-a-century ago remains a testament to the power of advertising. Back then, real men smoked Marlboro, sophisticates smoked Phillip Morris and lovers smoked Oasis.

And the nation has spent 50 years undoing the damage.

Today, new images have replaced the old. And the graphic depictions of the devastation wreaked by tobacco (ironically paid for by the tobacco companies themselves) seem to have had an effect. According to the Utah Department of Health, tobacco prevention programs in Utah over the past six years have cut the ranks of smokers by 25 percent — that's 29,000 people. The state's current smoking rate, 10.5 percent, is the lowest since 1984, when statistics were first compiled. Exposure to second-hand smoke is down 44 percent since 2001, and nearly 40 percent fewer teens are smoking today.

All good news.

The figures are a testament to common sense, interest in public health and an example of what can happen when an effective advertising campaign is sustained.

The flip side of the coin, of course, is that 200,000 Utahns still smoke. And tobacco-related problems cost the state $530 million each year in health care and other services. More than a thousand Utahns die each year from tobacco use.

Given the common knowledge that smoking kills, that remaining group of hard-core smokers will be harder to sway. Some groups, Hispanics, for example, come from cultures where cigarette smoking is still seen as a social grace, not disgrace. More ads targeted to those communities may help cut tobacco use in Utah further. Also, the state needs to keep cracking down on age-related violations. In 1996, inspections found a 40 percent violation rate in sales to minors. Today, that figure is 8 percent and shrinking. A better violation rate would be 0 percent.

Like most vices, tobacco smoking likely never will be eliminated. In fact, it will continue to lurk about, waiting to reappear. The goal of the state, and all concerned citizens, must be to keep the pressure on and not allow "coffin nails" to flourish again, regardless of how macho, sophisticated and socially acceptable they were once made to seem by the gurus of Madison Avenue.