Remarks as prepared; not a transcript

Vice Admiral Richard H. Carmona, M.D., M.P.H, FACS
United States Surgeon General
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Opening Keynote Remarks at Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute

September 22, 2003

"Secondhand Smoke and Hispanic Families:
Smart Decisions Result in Better Health"

Hola y bienvenidos. Thank you, Congressman Rodriguez, for that kind introduction. (Representative Ciro Rodriguez of Texas)

And thank you for your consistent leadership in the area of Hispanic health.

I also want to thank the American Legacy Foundation for increasing Americansí understanding of the terrible risks of smoking and all other forms of tobacco use.

This is part of increasing health literacy in America and closing the gap between what health professionals know and what Americans understand and do in their daily lives.

As Surgeon General, it is my responsibility to ensure that Americans are getting the best science-based information to make decisions about their health.

The Office of the Surgeon General has long played a key role in exposing the risks of tobacco use. Nearly 40 years ago, Surgeon General Luther Terry issued the groundbreaking "Report on Smoking and Health."

The need for change in how we viewed tobacco was fundamental to improving our nationís public health, and Dr. Terry knew that. What science had not yet appreciated in1964 when the Surgeon Generalís Report was issued was that secondhand smoke is also a deadly byproduct of tobacco use.

Secondhand smoke poses a significant threat to all Americans, especially the most vulnerable among us ó our children. Exposure to tobacco smoke is associated with childhood asthma and with Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Today, more than 53,000 Americans die each year from being exposed to secondhand smoke.

These are completely preventable deaths.

The good news is that our Hispanic families have taken that to heart Ö and that will save many of us from the diseases that exact a tremendous financial and health toll on Americans: including heart disease, cancer, pulmonary disease, and stroke.

Letís look at what we know about Hispanic Americansí attitudes and, even more important, their actions related to secondhand smoke:

  • 86% of Hispanic adults report that no one is allowed to smoke in their home, compared with 65% of non-Hispanic adults.
  • 60% of Hispanic adults say they are very concerned about the impact of cigarette smoke on those around them. This compares with only 31% of other Americans.

This important new information from the American Legacy Foundation shows that Hispanic Americans are taking the threat of secondhand smoke seriously and are acting to reduce their exposure to it. 

When it comes to making healthy choices to keep our families safe and healthy, knowledge is power. The power to act Ö the power to make healthy choices for our families.

This is good news for our Latino families and communities. It should be a great source of pride for all of us. Letís recognize that this is a success story for the Hispanic community.

Unfortunately, in many communities the data are far less positive. Many communities still need to gain control of the problem. For Latinos, we must defend what we have achieved.

This means not allowing the next generation of Latinos to pick up the smoking habit.

The reality is that most adults who smoke begin smoking before their 18th birthday.

More than 4,000 American children age 17 and younger will try their first cigarette today.

And smoking trends among Latino teenagers mirror the national average. In middle school 9% of Latino youth smoke; by high school that percentage rises to 21%. Thatís way too high.

Youth smoking rates are declining across all racial and ethnic groups. But for Hispanic youth, the decline is happening more slowly than for others. If we lose the battle for our teenagers, all the gains that weíve reported today can be lost. None of us wants that to happen.

In closing, let me ask you this: How many of you know a Hispanic teenager who smokes? Or maybe who you suspect is a secret smoker? [Ask them to raise their hands.] Okay then, your challenge is to mentor that teenager away from smoking.

Be a positive role model. Donít let that young Latino or Latina become like the millions of Americans who started smoking before age 18 and just canít seem to quit the habit 2, 3, or 4 decades later.

Letís all celebrate the good news that todayís Hispanic families understand the dangers of secondhand smoke and are taking significant action to reduce exposing their children to it.

But at the same time letís be alert to the challenges that still exist and work with health care professionals, our elected leaders, schools, communities, and families to make sure that the next generation of Hispanic kids stays away from the dangers of smoking.

With that, I just want to thank you all for your efforts to improve the health and well-being of all Americans.

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Last revised: January 9, 2007