Jack Miller 

Firsthand knowledge about secondhand smoke

Jack Miller has smoked just one cigarette in his life. He was only 5 years old when he and his older sister stole one of his father's cigarettes.

"We lit up and got real sick real fast," said Miller. "We told our parents and got in big trouble."

Many years later, Miller spends his days talking to people about the catastrophic effects of smoking. Following his undergraduate years at Ricks College (now BYU Idaho) and graduate years at Idaho State, Miller focused on public-health education, eventually becoming a program manager for Idaho's Department of Health and Welfare. Miller oversees Project Filter, the state's tobacco prevention and control program. His work has become a professional--and to some degree--personal mission.

So your father smoked?

He still does. He's in his early 60s.

How is his health?

He recently had a heart attack. The first thing that he did when he got out of the hospital was smoke.

Is smoke an out-of-bounds topic between the two of you?

Nope.

But haven't those conversations gone in circles by now?

Pretty much. I think that the big thing it teaches me for my job is that I can't make anyone quit. That's why our marketing message right now is "You decide when. We'll show you how."

When we're out in the community, we'll have couples come up to us and a wife might say, "We're here because he needs to quit." We'll turn to the man and ask, "Are you ready to quit?" Then he'll say, "No."

Do you envision your dad as you go about your work?

I really haven't thought about that. Probably. Sometimes when I come in to work, it's like, "Should I really be doing this job?" because I can't even help my own dad quit.

At some point, you need to stop beating yourself up over it.

I'm fortunate to have great staff because they remind me of our program's message. They reiterate to me that I can help him when he's ready to be helped, but he's not there yet.

Did you follow the debate that led up to Boise's no-smoking ordinances?

Yes. I attended a couple of the meetings to listen to public testimony. I didn't testify. With some of our funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we have to be very careful about lobbying. If a city council member were to ask me about secondhand smoke, I could educate them. But if they asked me whether they should vote yes or no on a policy, I could only refer to the facts.

Did you hear anything in those hearings that you hadn't heard before?

No. The arguments are the same as those I heard more than a decade ago.

So for all of the conversation about smoking before individual rights, I'm guessing you see this as a public-health issue.

That's right. It costs the state $319 million in medical costs each year to treat the effects of tobacco-related disease; 450,000 people die in this country every year from tobacco-related illnesses; four Idahoans die every day from tobacco-related disease. There's no need for that. Worse yet, approximately 50,000 people nationwide die each year from disease tied to secondhand smoke. They have never picked up a cigarette in their lives. My mom has lung issues but she never smoked.

There were some conversations earlier this year among state lawmakers about the possibility of raising the state's tobacco tax, as a possible effort to fund Medicaid shortfalls.

In Idaho, our cigarette tax is only 57 cents a pack, one of the lowest in the nation.

But that issue didn't go anywhere last session.

It didn't pass, but we felt we still made inroads. We still got the message out there.

Do you have a sense that it will be revisited this year?

Yes. Rep. [Dennis] Lake has been quoted as saying he would sponsor a bill again if a coalition wants to push it forward. They're definitely talking about it.

How much of an issue is smokeless tobacco?

It's growing across the board. I knew people growing up who said, "You're not a real man if you spit your smokeless. You swallow it." I had people my own age die of throat and stomach cancer. I have a hard time with a product that markets itself as something you don't have to spit out.

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