We're Getting Closer to a Smokefree America — But There’s More Work to Be Done

05.31.17

Helena B. Foulkes is Executive Vice President of CVS Health and President of CVS Pharmacy. This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.com.

For Americans in 2017, the message is loud and clear: Smoking kills. Warnings of the health risks, from heart disease to cancer, jump out from billboards, TV spots, and even cigarette cartons themselves.

We’ve made huge strides toward educating the public on the health risks of tobacco, and it's working. The percentage of American adults who smoke has dropped almost every year since the CDC started collecting data, from a high of 42 percent in 1965 to just 15 percent in 2015. In fact, the number of adult smokers plunged by nearly three and a half million between 2014 and 2015 alone, the biggest one-year decline in almost 20 years.

Some in America are breathing easier as a result. Rates of lung cancer in men have dropped over the past 20 years; and while lung cancer rates increased 94% among women since 1973 they are now starting to slowly decline. Anyone can get lung cancer, however smoking remains a major risk factor. Our tobacco control efforts are paying off.

More good news: Almost 70 percent of smokers now say they want to quit, according to The World Health Organization. Tobacco use is a serious addiction, and the desire to quit is the first step toward quitting and cutting their risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer.

I am delighted by those results—but not satisfied.

When Lung Cancer Is Personal

You might call beating cancer my personal mission; I lost my mother to lung cancer in 2009, and I miss her every single day. That's why in 2014, I was especially proud to be a member of the executive team at CVS Health that made the pivotal decision to stop selling tobacco products. The loss from moving away from tobacco was anticipated at $2 billion in sales, but we knew this was inconsistent with our purpose of helping people on their path to better health.

It’s important to note that our efforts are as much about adding as they are about subtracting. For the fourth year in a row, CVS Health is proud to be a national presenting sponsor of the American Lung Association's LUNG FORCE initiative, which unites women and their loved ones across the country to stand together against lung cancer. In addition to raising funds for LUNG FORCE, the American Lung Association and CVS Health are partnering to support tobacco-free communities, which is key to making a difference against lung cancer.

More Work to Do

Even with all this educating, campaigning and fundraising, there's a lot more we can do as a country to further drive down the numbers of smoking-related deaths.

At last count, 36.5 million people in the U.S. still smoke cigarettes, and one out of every five deaths is attributable to smoking. Not only that, but lung cancer remains the number one cancer killer of women and men in the U.S.

The reality is that 70 percent of smokers want to stop smoking, but only 49 percent will actually try this year. The reason is as daunting as it is simple: Cigarettes are highly addictive. Cravings set in as soon as four hours after the last cigarette, and withdrawal symptoms can include sleep and eating problems, anxiety, and depression. People need help to quit smoking and fortunately, that help is available. 

Our Moment is Now

We’ve arrived at the ideal intersection of knowledge, desire, and advances in smoking-cessation products and programs. Smokers know the risks of tobacco, and they want to quit. We've developed quit-smoking solutions, ranging from nicotine replacement therapy to online programs.

Even if you're not a smoker yourself, chances are you know someone whose life has been damaged by smoking, or who has lost someone to lung cancer. If you'd like to help raise critical funds for lung cancer awareness, research, and prevention, you can donate online at Lung.org/CVS.

We've done a lot. But we have much work left to do. Please join us in our fight to make smoking-related deaths a scourge of the past.

To learn more about our efforts to reduce smoking rates, visit our Tobacco Prevention & Cessation information center. And to stay informed about the most talked-about topics in health care, register for content alerts and our bi-weekly health care newsletter.