ELMIRA, N.Y. (WENY) – The Southern Tier Tobacco Awareness Coalition and local students from Chemung, Schuyler and Steuben Counties met with state lawmakers in Albany this week to discuss smoking rates throughout the state.

The group spoke with Assemblyman Christopher Friend, Assemblyman Phil Palmesano and Senator Tom O'Mara about the local tobacco control program helping to lower the statewide smoking rate. They also discussed what still needs to be done in order to lower the smoking rate, particularly in high-need communities.

According to STTAC, throughout New York, just over 19% of those who earn less than $25,000 a year and who have less than a high school education smoke cigarettes, as do 26% of those who experience poor mental health.

Overall, the average adult smoking rate has dropped to a historic law of 14.2% in New York State. STTAC says this is thanks to the New York State Tobacco Control Partners who have contributed to the drop in tobacco rates through “policy-driven, cost effective and evidence-based efforts”.

STTAC says these methods are now being focused on communities with high tobacco use rates.

Southern Tier Tobacco Awareness Coalition Reality Check Coordinator, Samantha White states, “It’s important to recognize the progress that we have made statewide with the adult smoking rate at an all-time low. However, we cannot ignore the fact that 25.9% of adults smoke in Chemung County. That’s over 10% higher than the state average. There are still unmet needs in our area.”

Another area of concern, STTAC says, is smoking rate among youth. The organization reports cigarette smoking among New York's high schoolers has dropped 82% between 2000 and 2018, but from 2016 to 2018, the rate increased slightly for the first time since 2000. Additionally, electronic cigarette use among the state's middle and high schoolers continues to rise. STTAC says between 2014 and 2018, the rate increased from 10.5% to 27.4%. Studies show e-cigarettes can be a precursor to cigarette smoking in teens.

“I see my classmates using e-cigarettes in the bathrooms between classes. Some people I know can’t make it through class without leaving to use their e-cigarettes,” says Ernie Davis Academy student, Emma Pack.

According to STTAC, more than half of teens believe e-cigarettes are harmless; however, e-cigarettes still contain nicotine and exposure can cause addiction, increasing the risk of teens starting and continuing to smoke traditional cigarettes.

During meetings in Albany, the Southern Tier Tobacco Awareness Coalition, Reality Check youth, and their Tobacco Control Program partners from around the state educated lawmakers about their tobacco control work with local communities and health care organizations, including these critical areas of need. In The Well of the Legislative Office Building, Reality Check youth leaders hosted an interactive, life-sized board game called “Tobacco Trouble” set up to highlight recent tobacco control successes and the continued fight against Big Tobacco and how the tobacco industry has overfilled the state’s retail outlets with tobacco products.

Also taking place in Albany was the Youth Advocate of the Year Award ceremony, sponsored by Reality Check of New York State. This award honors the outstanding work of youth advocates who have taken the lead in holding the tobacco companies accountable for marketing to youth. Three Southern Tier youth applied and were recognized as honorable mentions for this award. These local young activists are fighting to protect their peers and their communities from the dangers of tobacco use through public education efforts, peer-to-peer training and outreach to policymakers.  Many have worked to improve communities at the local and state level by limiting tobacco industry access to youth, protect youth from exposure to tobacco marketing and imagery, and ensure that tobacco prevention programs continue to receive funding. Their work inspires and motivates other young people to join in their advocacy efforts.

“State Tobacco Control Programs save lives and money. Investing in tobacco control will prevent youth tobacco use and reduce adult smoking rates,” said Julie Hart, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN) New York senior government relations director. “We are excited to see Governor Cuomo is making tobacco control a top priority in his budget. We know fighting Big Tobacco will take a comprehensive approach. As data about New Yorkers with low income, low education, mental illness and youth tobacco use show, when it comes to deadly and addictive nicotine, the fight to save their lives isn’t over.”

According to STTAC, smoking costs New York State $10.39 billion in annual health care costs. This results in a tax burden of $1,410 for each household every year. Additionally, each year, 28,200 New Yorkers die due to smoking and thousands more live with illnesses related to tobacco use.