Feb. 22, 2016 | The Tennessean

Senator Bill FristOf the thousands of heart and lung operations I have performed, the most common cause of the underlying disease in these patients was a single voluntary behavior: smoking.

That tragedy is what Tennessee Quit Week (Feb. 22-28) is all about.

Smoking absolutely leads to a shorter, poorer-quality life. It more than doubles a person’s risk of stroke or heart disease, and increases the risk of lung cancer by 25 times!

Each year it causes more deaths than automobile accidents, firearm-related injuries, HIV, illegal drug use and alcohol abuse combined.

The good news is that most smokers want to stop, and there are effective tools to help. The benefits are almost immediate: Within two days of smoking cessation, nerve endings regenerate. In two weeks, circulation improves; after just one year, the risk for heart attack is cut in half.

Tobacco use is the most preventable cause of premature mortality and morbidity, yet one of five Tennessee adults smokes regularly and one of nine adolescents self-report smoking.

That’s why smoking prevention and cessation is the first priority of the new grassroots, community collaborative NashvilleHealth.

Nashville's smoking rates are higher than the national average and that of all our peer cities. We must aggressively address this most preventable cause of premature disability and death.

Governor Bill Haslam has proclaimed the week of Feb. 22 as “Tennessee Quit Week." This effort comes on the heels of a new report from the American Lung Association that found Tennessee flunking tobacco control, receiving a “C” grade for smoke-free air and “F's” for tobacco prevention and cessation funding, access to cessation services and tobacco taxes.

That's our clarion call to action.

First, communities must insist that state government more adequately fund programs on tobacco cessation that we know work.

In 2014 the Haslam administration and state legislature allocated $15 million over three years to county health departments to implement tobacco cessation programs locally.

This funding has a lifesaving impact, but it is too little. The Volunteer State spends just 9 percent of what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends, even though it annually brings in over $400 million in tobacco-related revenue.

Second, we know that secondhand smoke kills. Yet in Tennessee, local municipalities are not permitted to strengthen the state’s smoke-free laws in their region. Communities should be empowered to make parks, playgrounds and venues like Nashville’s new Ascend Amphitheater smoke-free zones.

The CDC reminds us there is “no risk-free level of secondhand smoke exposure; even brief exposure can be harmful to health.”

The Metro Public Health Department (MPHD) is already working hard to provide tools and education to those who need help quitting, and NashvilleHealth is happy to join in.

The MPHD will offer to the public the American Lung Association’s “Freedom From Smoking” cessation course beginning the last week of February. Its “Breathe Easy” campaign is wisely encouraging multi-unit housing to go smoke-free. And it will be rolling out the “Baby and Me Tobacco Free” program, which provides quit assistance to pregnant women and new mothers this month.

What can individuals do?

  • Call the Tobacco Quit Line, 1-800-QUIT-NOW (784-8669). You can talk to a counselor who will help create a plan tailored specifically to you, free of charge. If indicated they will provide you with two weeks of free nicotine patches to get you started.
  • Attend the Metro Public Health Department’s new “Freedom from Smoking” quit course; call 615-340-5334 or contact [email protected].
  • Visit the “It’s Quittin’ Time in Tennessee" online calendar and resource page.
  • Share personal stories and innovative ideas on how our community might better tackle tobacco prevention and cessation with us directly at nashvillehealth.org.

No amount of prescriptions, operations or doctor’s office visits will correct for our unhealthy behavior. Let's together make Nashville healthier today, by wiping out smoking.

Dr. William H. Frist is a nationally acclaimed heart and lung transplant surgeon. He served as U.S. senator from Tennessee from 1995 to 2007 and as former U.S. Senate majority leader from 2003 to 2007.

This op-ed originally appeared in The Tennessean.