Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, juggled an Ebola outbreak in Africa while traveling in Eastern Kentucky earlier this month to learn about the region's stark health disparities.
We appreciate his accepting U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers' invitation to travel the mountains for three days, participate in events and discussions that drew more than 1,000 people, all while fielding worldwide calls and emails from those working to contain the deadly virus.
After all that, the least Kentuckians can do is pay attention to what Frieden had to say, especially about what he called "the No. 1 cause of preventable death in this country" — smoking.
Kentucky suffers the nation's highest smoking-related death rate, which shaves an average five to six years off life expectancy compared with residents of other states.
Kentucky's lung cancer rate exceeds the nation's by 67 percent, and in Eastern Kentucky it's even higher. The state's ranking on heart disease has actually worsened, Frieden reported, going from 30 percent above the U.S. rate in 1999 to 54 percent in 2011.
How can we fight this scourge? Frieden prescribed:
■ Higher tobacco taxes.
■ Public smoking bans.
■ Aggressive advertising about how smoking and tobacco use harm human health.
That combination drove down smoking rates in New York when Frieden was the city's health commissioner, more than halving the number of kids who smoke. Kentucky lags on all three fronts.
Only about a third of Kentuckians are protected by bans on smoking in enclosed public spaces while two-thirds of Americans live in places that have protections from secondhand smoke.
Sadly, the local smoke-free movement appears to have hit a wall in Kentucky, and a recent Supreme Court ruling robs local health departments of the authority to enact smoke-free regulations.
A Bluegrass Poll earlier this year found that 57 percent of registered voters support a statewide smoke-free law.
But despite public opinion, the tobacco industry prevails with lawmakers. The top spender by far among lobbyists in this year's General Assembly was Altria Group, parent company of Philip Morris USA and U.S. Smokeless Tobacco.
Altria's $156,200 spent on lobbying helped kill smoke-free legislation. Plus, the industry got its desired version of the bill banning electronic cigarette sales to minors, and blocked a new tax on e-cigarettes.
Only eight states tax cigarettes less than Kentucky's 60 cents a pack. The national average is $1.54 and the average for Kentucky's seven border states is 84 cents.
And, while Kentucky has pumped hundreds of millions of tobacco settlement dollars into agricultural development, the state that suffers the most from smoking has never waged a major media campaign against smoking.
This year, 8,000 Kentuckians will die from smoking-related causes, according to the CDC head. That's far more deaths than Ebola has caused in the almost 40 years since its first diagnosis.
The onus is on the legislature to act; Kentuckians should demand it.