Strolling the sidewalks of downtown Chattanooga on Saturday night was delightful — with one exception. A haze of cigarette smoke wafted from the outdoor cafes.

Most every smoker I observed was born after 1985 when the U.S. Surgeon General’s warning — which in 1966 stated smoking “may” be hazardous to your health and then in 1970 confirmed smoking is dangerous — clearly affirmed: Smoking causes lung cancer, heart disease, emphysema and problems with pregnancies.

Why are such warnings not heeded? Is it simply that false sense of immortality that goes with youth? Do peer pressure or self-esteem issues begin the habit and then the addiction to nicotine takes over?

Despite decades of warnings, bans on broadcast advertising and many restrictive policies on smoking in public places, the statistics are still staggering.

According to a 2008 National Health Interview Survey, an estimated 24.8 million men (23.1 percent) in the U.S. are smokers, along with 21.1 million women (18.3 percent).

With all the public information available now, it is hard to use ignorance as an excuse. Even many bright young people today — including some Mercer University law students with whom I share parking spaces in Macon, Ga. — light up on a regular basis.

Of course, smoking is not the only health risk and similar questions could be raised about other lifestyle choices that put our health at risk. But those do not distract from the haze created by this one.

It is one thing to live and to learn. It is another to watch others die and to not learn.

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