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Originally published Thursday, April 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Smokers need out help to kick their habit

He was the first guy I ever looked up to. I never knew my dad until very late in life and my mom died when I was a teenager. But my cousin, Leon Taylor — he was the man.

Special to The Times

He was the first guy I ever looked up to. I never knew my dad until very late in life and my mom died when I was a teenager. But my cousin, Leon Taylor — he was the man.

Leon was a catcher for the Kankakee (Ill.) Jaycee Little League team and helped propel the team to the Little League World Series championship game in 1958. He won one of the big playoffs leading up to the Series with a last-inning, three-run homer. I was so proud.

Leon went on to college — the first in our family to go. He was a counselor, dedicated to talking through problems and lending a hand to those falling through the cracks.

Leon is the reason I went into social work and counseling. He made me see that a life of making things better — working with people — could change the future for all of us.

Leon isn't doing very well these days; he has cancer — lung cancer.

His wife Dolores told me it's inoperable, as his history of heart problems has left him too weak to undergo chemotherapy or an operation. Yes, there are some new experimental treatments that he will try, but his last few months have been spent in and out of the hospital. His two dear daughters and wife are not feeling very optimistic.

I remember him even as a young man being hooked on cigarettes; I escaped, as my asthma made smoking an impossibility. However, we both have a family history of heart problems, diabetes and cancer.

Quitting isn't easy. It never has been.

And, with more than a decade of smoking-cessation ads, billboards, radio spots and thousands of personal stories made public, guess what?

Despite the many ongoing successes in the field of tobacco control, tobacco continues to be the greatest cause of disease and preventable death in America today, claiming more than 430,000 lives each year.

You thought we had that one licked, didn't you? Well, we don't.

But we took a big step forward this year when the Legislature gave smokers and doctors one more tool to help them quit, funding smoking-cessation medicines for low-income families. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, had strong bipartisan support. In a year when keeping costs low was on everyone's mind, the Legislature took this courageous step because lawmakers know how costly smoking is to everyone.

The fight to rid the country of tobacco disease has many legislative successes: tobacco taxes, education campaigns, banning smoking in public places, teaching tobacco cessation in schools, and others. But for would-be quitters, these achievements aren't enough.

Too many low-income households, families of color, immigrants and less-well-educated individuals are among those who still haven't been able to kick the habit. They are hardly alone. Smokers populate every demographic.

Currently, we rely on policies that penalize smokers. But positive strategies are just as important. There must be support in place for the smoker who is trying to quit. It is not enough to simply provide smokers with the motivation to quit; we must support smokers by teaching them how to quit successfully.

Leon tried to quit many times. But there were few choices. There are now new drugs coming on line that can help. But federal programs don't pay for them.

Smoking is a chronic, relapsing medical condition — an addiction similar in nature to that seen in heroin users. About 70 percent of smokers report that they want to quit, but only 5 percent of them succeed without medical assistance. The average smoker will attempt to quit six to eight times before succeeding.

According to "Treating Tobacco Use and Dependence," better smoking-cessation treatments for tobacco users are available and should be a part of standard caregiving.

Which brings me back to my hero, my cousin, Leon Taylor.

He wishes he had stopped smoking; he tried all eight of those times and eight more.

It is said that most smokers will eventually become ex-smokers of their own volition, but there are many who need more assistance. Health professionals need to screen and advise them on how to quit smoking in a manner that best suits their needs.

Quitting isn't easy. But with the right support, it is possible. Maybe not for Leon, but if there is one thing I promised his family, it's that his story would help others make the treatments and special counseling to stop smoking available for all those heroes out there.

I love you, Cuz. And I won't forget what you did for me.

James Kelly is president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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