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We’ve been reading a lot about the opioid crisis in America. It’s a killer that is getting worse. There is another epidemic plaguing Americans, and it’s a much bigger killer than opioid abuse.

Actually, it’s an epidemic that has plagued America and Americans for many years — and in most cases it’s perfectly legal.

Tobacco products, but especially cigarettes, are responsible for nearly a half-million premature deaths in the U.S. every year. Even side-stream smoke from cigarettes manages to cause the deaths of more than 40,000 Americans a year.

Smoking is a habit that is almost a sure-thing killer. Research shows that 67 percent of smokers die at relatively young ages as a direct result of smoking-related afflictions. Globally, smoking kills more than 5 million people a year.

Yet, in so many places, encountering cigarette smoke is still a fact of life — or in this context, illness or death. For many years smoking was one of the rites of passage from youth to adulthood. Anti-smoking campaigns have changed that perception, but the image of the rebellious young smoker has a certain appeal to kids.

All of which emphasizes the importance of the most recent State of Tobacco Control Report from the American Lung Association. Data released last week gives North County communities low grades when it comes to controlling smoking, indoors and out.

Santa Maria and Lompoc scored a near-failing D overall, while Santa Maria moved up a notch to a C in the outdoor-air category. These are the same grades the city received in last year’s report.

Santa Maria’s City Council unanimously adopted a new smoking ordinance in September 2016 that banned smoking in parks and public spaces, including plazas and courtyards next to municipal facilities and city-owned parking lots. A violation of the smoking ordinances results in a $100 fine, but only about a dozen citations have been issued.

Most communities have developed ordinances against smoking in public places, including outdoors where drifting cigarette smoke can pollute a large area.

There’s really no need to shame local communities further for not clamping down on smoking. While California has some of the nation’s toughest no-smoking rules, the most recent American Lung Association report shows only 31 communities statewide received an A grade. That’s up from 21 cities getting an A the year before — but still a pathetic outcome when you consider there are nearly 500 cities in California. About half of those communities got either a D or an F in the current Lung Association report.

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The problem is that tobacco is one of the most addictive substances on the planet. That fact is amplified by the old joke about a smoker who says, “Yeah, it’s easy to quit. I do it all the time.”

It's one of the most addictive habits, and one that is almost sure to end a smoker’s life before it might have ended without the smoking habit.

Enforcing anti-smoking ordinances, especially at the local level, is difficult. For one thing, smoking is most dangerous to those actually doing the puffing, thus it is a self-inflicted wound.

The key to breaking the smoking curse is education, starting early with your children, telling them the horror stories. Or perhaps make them watch some of the excellent anti-smoking ads, the most compelling of which is the one showing a rail-thin woman talking through a hole in her throat.

No matter how tough you think you are, that one stings.

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