No one was happier than Denice Dennis last week after the CVS drugstore chain announced it will discontinue selling tobacco products. The manager of the Contra Costa Tobacco Prevention Project has spent the last 16 years fighting to eliminate tobacco use.

A former smoker herself -- she started at 14 and quit when she was 30 -- Dennis is tragically aware of the dangers of the product. She lost a grandfather to emphysema and her mother to lung cancer.

"I'm close to 25 years now being tobacco-free," she said.

Twenty-five years also happens to be how long the Tobacco Prevention Project has operated in Contra Costa. Funded by Proposition 99 -- the state Tobacco Tax and Health Protection Act of 1988 -- it has tirelessly emphasized the troubling findings associated with smoking:

  • More than 6,500 county residents die from smoking-related illness each year.

  • Smoking costs an estimated $228 million annually in medical expenses in Contra Costa County.

  • 90 percent of adult smokers began before the age of 18.

  • Each cigarette shortens a smoker's life by an average of 11 minutes.

    The Tobacco Prevention Project is part of the county's broader Tobacco Prevention Coalition, which dates to 1984 and combines the assets of more than two dozen individuals and organizations, ranging from the American Lung Association to the Contra Costa Child Care Council, in trying to stamp out nicotine's reach.


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    Its success has been measured in incremental steps. In the 1980s, Dennis said, Contra Costa became the first multijurisdictional area in the U.S. to adopt indoor secondhand-smoke protection laws. Perhaps you remember no-smoking seating in restaurants.

    In the late 1990s, the coalition helped persuade 15 cities to prohibit self-service tobacco displays. ("We found that clerks were more likely to check for age if they had to assist the customer making a purchase," she said.)

    More recently, the push for comprehensive secondhand-smoke protection has resulted in no-smoking ordinances in unincorporated Contra Costa and seven cities, the latest being Walnut Creek.

    "Since the Prevention Project started in 1989, we've had close to a 35 percent reduction in smoking rates across the county," Dennis said. "Unfortunately, it's not consistent in all communities."

    Smoking rates are predictably higher among African-Americans, low-income families and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population, she said, because they are targeted by the tobacco industry through stores, websites and social media outlets that young people frequent.

    Illegal cigarette sales to minors are one of the coalition's biggest concerns; some Contra Costa cities have illegal-sales rates of as much as 26 percent, according to findings of state sting operations.

    A newer concern is the evolution of electronic cigarettes -- battery-powered, vaporizing, nicotine-delivery systems that replicate the real things. "We know they're not healthy," Dennis said, "and they pose a significant risk of renormalizing smoking in public places."

    California's 14.3 percent smoking rate is the second-lowest in the nation -- "We've made great strides," Dennis said -- but she knows the battle is far from won.

    She also knows, better than most, the tragic consequences of lighting up.

    Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.