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Tackling the Public Health Issue of Tobacco Use

Public health professionals face new challenges and lingering problems.

Tobacco use remains a serious public health issue in the 21st century. Cigarette smoking is the number one preventable cause of death in the U.S., causing more than 480,000 deaths each year.1 Research continues to emerge highlighting the negative effects of smoking, linking it to cancer, heart disease, stroke, birth defects, and lung disease. And the ill effects don’t end with the primary tobacco user—secondhand smoke exposure has resulted in 2.5 million deaths in the U.S. since 1964.2

Smoking-related illness comes at a premium for public health systems, costing more than $300 billion each year in the U.S., including $170 billion in medical care and $156 billion in lost productivity.2

Tackling the Public Health Issue of Tobacco Use

Public health professionals focus on reducing tobacco use in an effort to end the ongoing crisis. Programs may focus on prevention through education, support groups to help smokers break their addiction, enacting smoke-free policies in public places such as schools and restaurants, and running media campaigns aimed at exposing the risks of tobacco.

In the U.S., the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP) creates a new set of national objectives every decade for improving the health of all Americans. The Healthy People 2020 initiative highlights several emerging issues related to tobacco use that community health workers should be aware of when developing public health programs to fight tobacco use:

1. E-Cigarettes and Alternate Forms of Tobacco Are on the Rise

While traditional cigarette smoking rates have declined over the past few years, use of alternate forms of tobacco, such as e-cigarettes, has skyrocketed—especially among youth. More than 3.6 million middle and high school students engage in “vaping,” making e-cigarettes the most commonly used tobacco product in the U.S. today.3 Where tobacco use among younger populations was previously on the decline, the appearance of e-cigarettes on the market has resulted in a sharp uptick in youth addiction to nicotine.

2. Flavored Tobacco Products Attract Children and Teens

Many e-cigarette companies target children with attractive advertisements and fruit flavors. Adding characterizing flavors (other than tobacco and menthol) to traditional cigarettes is an illegal practice in the U.S., but e-cigarettes currently do not fall under the same restrictions. Public health professionals should prioritize education efforts for children, warning them against the dangers of vaping, including an increased risk of lung disease and cancer.

3. Secondhand Smoke Exposure Continues

While bans on smoking in public parks, restaurants, airplanes, and schools have greatly alleviated the problem of secondhand smoke exposure, 58 million Americans are still affected each year.2 Homes and workplaces are the primary sources of secondhand smoke exposure in the U.S. Health educators must continue their efforts to draw attention to the dangers of secondhand smoke and communicate ways that people can reduce their exposure.

Community health workers have an increasingly vital role to play in ongoing public health issues such as tobacco use. Spurred on by the rising costs of healthcare, many organizations are focusing on prevention as a path to greater wellness. Pursuing a Master of Public Health (MPH) or an MS in Health Education and Promotion can help build your knowledge of public health issues and your ability to create successful health education programs.

An accredited institution, Walden University offers both an MS in Health Education and Promotion and a Master of Public Health (MPH) program online, allowing you to earn a degree in a convenient, flexible format without interrupting your public health career.


Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,