The Hood River County School District is hosting a series of evening presentations about tobacco prevention during late January and mid-February. The presentations are given by Richard McBee, the district's tobacco prevention specialist, and are offered in English and Spanish. (See sidebar for schedule.)
The focus of the programs -- geared toward adults and students -- is to provide an overview of the public health crisis caused by tobacco, according to McBee, and to give information on services and techniques available for people who want to quit using tobacco.
"People don't realize the kind of problem tobacco has caused," McBee said. He said that more than 6,500 deaths a year -- about one-fifth of all deaths -- in Oregon are "attributed to tobacco related causes."
"It's a gigantic public health problem," he said. "And it's preventable." Citing studies conducted by the Oregon Research Institute, McBee said most people start smoking somewhere between 6th and 11th grades -- with the two percent of kids in 6th grade using tobacco rising to 22 percent by 11th grade.
"We're making a big push for prevention," McBee said. "We have to educate people at that age and educate our community," including vendors and adults who provide tobacco to youth, he said.
McBee's job with the school district is funded partly by cigarette taxes designated for tobacco education. He divides his part-time position between working directly with the schools and students themselves, and outreach in the community.
The prevention talks are designed with both goals in mind: they correspond with Project PM at the schools, but are open to anyone in the community who wants to come.
According to McBee there has been a reduction in tobacco use in Oregon since the start of the cigarette-tax tobacco education program in the 1990s. Sales of cigarettes have dropped in 10 years from 5.8 billion to 4.8 billion.
"The program is having an effect," he said. In addition, there's been a reduction in the number of smokers in high risk groups, he said. The number of pregnant women who smoke, for example, dropped from 18 percent in 1996 to 13 percent last year.
"The key is it can't be a one-shot deal," McBee said. "(Tobacco prevention) must be an ongoing program. We need to work with people over the long haul."