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County among highest in lung cancer cases

By Connie Cartmell,

Three people close to Daniel Moss are tobacco smokers, or former smokers - his father, mother and grandmother. Two currently suffer from emphysema.

Tobacco use is considered a prime cause of emphysema, and lung cancer.

Moss himself, 23, has smoked cigarettes seven years and isn't about to quit anytime soon.

Even though he's watched his father and grandmother struggle for each and every breath.

For this Marietta resident, it's an issue of personal freedom.

His family ranks among thousands of Washington County residents, smokers, former smokers, and those who breathe the smoke of smokers, who now suffer serious health problems from tobacco.

At a press conference at McDonough Center at Marietta College Wednesday, the American Cancer Society, Southeast Ohio Chapter, released its third annual edition of "Ohio Cancer Facts & Figures."

The numbers don't look good for Daniel Moss or Washington County.

It shows Washington County's lung cancer incidence and death rate, from 1996 to 1999, higher than any other county in Ohio and higher than U.S. statistics.

"From 1996 through 1999, U.S. lung cancer incidence was 65.6 cases per 100,000 people," said Connie Grimes, president of the American Cancer Society local board of directors. "In Ohio, the number is even higher than the national average, 75.4 cases per 100,000. In Washington County, the rate is higher, 76.7 cases per 100,000 people."

Washington County is number one in Ohio.

In neighboring counties, incidence rates are also higher than state and national averages, as are some mortality rates. The only good news for Washington County is that mortality rates are slightly lower than state and national averages - 57.1 people out of every 100,000 die of the disease. Ohio's rate is 64.0 per 100,000, the national, 58.4 people.

Public health agencies continue to try to raise awareness.

"My mom recently quit after 25 years of smoking," Moss said. "She spends a lot of time with my grandma. She's got emphysema, and can't be around smoke anymore."

Still, Moss continues smoking cigarettes - less than a pack a day - and he isn't about to give up his smokes, even though his father, 53, also has emphysema.

Emphysema is a serious respiratory disease that puts air in tissues, robbing the lungs of their ability to expand and contract.

"Tobacco use is at least one of the causes," said Leighanne Hehr, cancer control director with the American Cancer Society, Southeast Ohio. "It's a huge problem, killing 81,000 people a year. About 65,000 of those same people smoked cigarettes. You see people with oxygen and many have emphysema."

When asked what role pollution plays in the county's lung cancer figures, local officials said data is less conclusive. Washington County has long been one of the most polluted counties in the state, particularly when it comes to air pollution.

Even so, the local emphasis is on smoking as the primary culprit of lung cancer. Moss figures one day he'll have emphysema, too, or even worse. He learned all about both diseases in school and knows what can happen.

Moss believes smoking should not be taken away from him by government regulation, such as a public smoking ban considered in Belpre.

"It's my personal belief that doing away with smoking is like doing away with alcohol in the 1920s," Moss said. "It's our personal choice, a personal freedom."

Hehr agrees that smoking tobacco is totally his choice.

"People certainly have the right to smoke. It's their body," she said. "But just don't give me your secondhand smoke."

Tobacco use continues to be responsible for one in every five deaths in the nation, Grimes said.

"Despite widespread knowledge of the dangers of smoking, about 26 percent of adult Ohioans smoke cigarettes regularly. Ohio ranks among the five highest states for smoking," she said.

An initiative called "Tobacco Free Ohio" is under way, said Sandy Erb, regional policy coordinator for the group, a collaboration of the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, and the American Lung Association. She is from Washington County.

"This is a health epidemic gripping our state and region," Erb said. "Tobacco is the only product made by man that when used as directed, will result in death."

Erb is working toward clean indoor air regulations across the state, including the one in Belpre.

"There is no safe cigarette," she said. "For the past 25 years, education hasn't worked. Now we are looking toward public policy."

Secondhand smoke is a growing problem. In 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency declared secondhand smoke is cancer-causing in humans. More than 3,000 lung cancer deaths occur annually in nonsmoking adults as a result of breathing secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke contains more than 4,000 substances, more than 40 of which are known or suspected to cause cancer.

Lynne Zoller, vice president of patient care at Marietta Memorial Hospital, said 30 percent of women who come to the hospital to deliver new babies are smokers.

"We need to be a voice for the children," Julie Ellenwood, executive director of the Southeastern Ohio Unit of the ACS, said. "They can't go up to someone in a restaurant and ask them not to smoke. I understand what smokers are saying when they speak of their 'freedom' to smoke. But it's our freedom to have fresh air too."


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