N.C. health officials buoyed by surgeon general's report

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Health officials in the heart of tobacco country said Tuesday the surgeon general's report is the first good health news in 21 years of anti-smoking reports.

U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello said quitting smoking is the 'single most important step' smokers can take to lengthen their lives, with those who stop before age 50 halving the risk of dying in the next 15 years of their lives,

'All of the previous reports concentrated on the negative effects of smoking,' said Dr. Elizabeth Cambell, a professor of oncology at the University of North Carolina. 'This is the first surgeon general to document the beneifts of quitting. The benefits are clearly greater for stopping smoking.'

Cambell, who practices at Wake Medical Center, specializes in cessation programs that help people stop smoking.

'This is extremely important news, for women in particular, in whom lung cancer rates have skyrocketed in the last 30 years,' Cambell said. 'The good news contained in the surgeon general's report today is that these health risks can be reversed.'

About 38 million Americans have kicked the habit.

One of them is Cathy Cahall, 37, from Emit, N.C, in the heart of the Eastern Tobacco Belt in Johnston County. She quit smoking Jan. 1 and won $1,000 for her efforts from Commit to a Healthier Raleigh, an anti- smoking group.

'It was my New Year's resolution,' said Cahall, who had smoked for 17 years. 'I just put them down.'

But Cahall said she was concerned with gaining weight before she quit.

'But, I finally just made up my mind. I was going to quit smoking and a I was not going to gain weight,' she said.

Since she abandoned her habit, she has lost 47 pounds. 'My goal is to lose another 30 pounds. I want to put smoking behind me.'

Despite the health attacks on tobacco products and steady declines in tobacco usage, tobacco remains the king crop in North Carolina.

'It's no suprise,' said Carl Sofley, a tobacco expert for the state. 'The surgeon general has been against smoking since the 1960s.'

Sofley said the current crop estimated at 591 million pounds would likely bring the state's gross farm income from tobacco to the $1 billion mark for the first time since 1984.

Gross farm income from tobacco topped that mark in 1978, 1980, 1981, 1982 and again in 1984, Sofley said.

It fell to $660 million in 1986 and increased yearly due to larger crops, state officials said.

State Agriculture Commissioner Jim Graham said North Carolina farmers will continue to earn a major part of their income from leaf sales.

'There is no intent by me or the North Carolina Department of Agriculture to encourage smoking by anyone,' Graham said. 'Tobacco does, however, contribute nearly one-fourth of the state's gross farm income of $4.6 billion.'

'Over three-fourths of our farm income is not tobacco,' he said. 'We can't be accused of not diversifying to the maximum. But we cannot, at this time do without tobacco.'