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Mourning 1,200 daily tobacco deaths

By Hank Sims, Daily Planet staff
Friday November 16, 2001

In keeping with its namesake, Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park is a monument to hope, to the future. Most days, its most notable feature is the Peace Wall, with its hand-drawn tiles made by children around the world, each wishing for the end of war. 

So passers-by on Thursday may have been somewhat jarred by the sight of 1,200 tombstones lined up in cemetery rows on the west side of the park. 

But really, there was no contradiction. Each of the tombstones stood in for one of 1,200 Americans who die each day from tobacco-related illnesses, and they were placed in the park with the hope that number will someday shrink to zero. 

Thursday marked the 25th anniversary of the Great American Smokeout. The all-day event at the park was both a celebration of that program’s success and a reminder – directed mostly at Berkeley High School students – that smoking still kills. 

The city, along with BHS students, the Associated Students of the University of California and Alameda County agencies, put together the display, and invited a special guest speaker – Debi Austin, a laryngectomy patient whose striking anti-smoking public service announcements have been playing on California television stations. 

Apart from Austin, several speakers perhaps less familiar to teenagers – including their superintendent, Michelle Lawrence, Mayor Shirley Dean and city Public Health Director Poki Namkung – were on hand to make sure the message hit home.  

Namkung, who has spent much of her time lately preparing for the possibility of biological warfare, noted that a far more deadly agent was being sold every day in stores around Berkeley. 

“I find it truly ironic that in this age of bioterrorism, when four people have died from anthrax, 1,200 people die every day from tobacco-related diseases,” she said. 

Namkung also praised the city’s recent efforts to develop guidelines for smoke shops and other vendors of tobacco. The City Council is working on legislation that would prevent shops whose major product is tobacco from locating near schools or city parks, and to develop licensing guidelines for all tobacco vendors in the city. 

“Berkeley is being bashed for a lot of its stands, but this stand is truly extraordinary,” she said. 

Dean said that she was a smoker in college, but after quitting for one day – which is what the Great American Smokeout asks of people – she was able to kick the habit entirely. 

“What Sept. 11 really showed us is how precious life really is,” she said. “In that vein, we need to do more to stop the tobacco industry. It’s no secret that they’re targeting young people.” 

Dean said that she was encouraged by the number of BHS students in attendance, and she asked them to take the day’s message to heart. 

“Enjoy the speakers, enjoy this day and most of all, enjoy your good, tobacco-free health,” she said. 

Anti-tobacco activities continued throughout the day. Several organizations, including the Lawrence Hall of Science, the American Cancer Society and KMEL Radio, provided information, interactive exhibits and party music. 

Austin, whose courageous PSA shows her puffing on a cigarette through a quarter-sized hole in her throat, met with students to talk about her experiences with larynx cancer. 

She said that because she has suffered from the effects of smoking, and because her injuries are so dramatic, teenagers listen to her. 

“You can’t tell someone not to smoke, because that’s the fastest way to get them to do it,” she said. “I just want them to see the other side of the glossy ads.” 

Austin said that after she had her operation, she was approached by lawyers who asked her if she wanted to file suit against tobacco companies. She decided against it, she said, because she didn’t want to spend all that time in a courtroom. 

“It’s a hell of a lot more fun being out here,” she said. “One person will walk away from this event and, because of it, won’t smoke. That’ll be worth a hell of a lot more than any lawsuit.” 

Austin, who was finally able to quit smoking a couple of years ago, said that she was very impressed by the turnout. 

“Not one of these kids has to be here,” she said. “That, more than anything, is awesome.”