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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: Aug. 4 would have been my sister's 45th birthday. Sadly, she died in October of last year from lung cancer. She had been a smoker since she was 13.

During her illness, I promised her I would try to stop as many kids as I could from making the same deadly mistake she did in starting to smoke. I'll keep that promise, and continue to fight the tobacco industry's targeting of children with every last bit of energy I have. I will also do everything in my power to educate young people about the dangers of tobacco.

Teen-agers and pre-teens: Smoking isn't "cool"; it's deadly! If you don't smoke now, PLEASE don't ever start. If you do smoke, quit NOW -- if you can. Tobacco products of all kinds are silent killers. By the time you find out you have a tobacco-related illness, it's usually too late.

Approximately 465,000 people in the United States die of tobacco-related diseases each year. I'm sure each and every one of them thought, "It won't happen to ME." That's exactly what my sister thought. Sadly, she was wrong -- dead wrong. Thanks to her addiction, she'll miss her sons' graduations, she'll never attend their weddings or see the faces of her grandchildren. She won't grow old with the husband she loved, and who adored her.

Abby, our family is devastated. We miss my sister with all our hearts. Please help me spread the word. -- HEARTBROKEN SISTER, CONCORD, CALIF.

DEAR HEARTBROKEN: I'm pleased to do it, but first permit me to offer my condolences for the loss of your beloved sister.

Your letter is a timely one because tomorrow is the 24th Great American Smokeout. For anyone who may not know, the Smokeout is an upbeat, good-humored one-day campaign to encourage smokers to quit smoking for 24 hours -- just to prove to themselves they can do it.

In 1999, 21 percent of smokers (approximately 10.8 million) participated in the Great American Smokeout. Of those participating, 11 percent (1,188,000) reported they were smoking less or not at all one to five days later. That's more than a million people who are on their way to healthier, smoke-free lives -- thanks to the American Cancer Society.

This year, because more than half of all smokers begin smoking before age 14, the focus of the Great American Smokeout is on teen-age smokers. It's necessary because the tobacco industry spends more than $6 billion a year -- that's $200 a second -- promoting a product to young people that's lethal when used as intended.

A majority of teen-agers who smoke have tried to quit, but find themselves "hooked." According to the experts, more than 70 percent of daily teen-age smokers who "think" they won't be smoking in five years are still smoking seven years later. Tragically, of the more than 3,000 young people a day who begin to smoke, ONE-THIRD will eventually die from a smoking-related disease.

While I'm on this morbid subject, I should mention that flavored cigarettes ("bidis") have recently become popular among young people. This may be due to their candylike taste, or their relatively inexpensive price ($1.25 a pack), or the fact that they are rumored to be less harmful than tobacco. Not true! What teens don't realize is that the sweet flavor of bidis masks the harsh, cancer-causing chemicals inside. Bidis have THREE times more carbon monoxide and nicotine, and FIVE times the amount of tar as American cigarettes have.

And so, dear readers of all ages, if you're hooked on tobacco and have been saying, "One of these days I've got to quit," why not join the Great American Smokeout and quit tomorrow? It won't be easy, but it'll be the best holiday present you can give yourself and the people who love you.

Those who need more help or more information about the effects of tobacco may call their local office of the American Cancer Society or (800) 227-2345. Teen-agers are invited to visit to learn what they can do, such as signing a pledge not to start -- or to stop if they are smokers now -- and to send virtual postcards to people they love who are addicted to tobacco.

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