Schoolchildren learn that "In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue" to the New World. They may not know, however, that among other things he discovered were natives using tobacco.
Tobacco use is believed to have been around far longer than that -- stretching back thousands of years -- and it has spread around the world.
But over the centuries, medical science -- and common sense -- began to connect the smoking and chewing of tobacco with serious illnesses including lung and mouth cancer, heart disease and countless other ailments.
So in modern times, many people wisely have quit using tobacco or avoided taking up the habit in the first place. But many others, despite the warnings, continue to light up and become addicted to the nicotine in tobacco. In consequence, tobacco is still big business in the United States and the rest of the world.
Now it is reported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that more than 19.3 percent of American adults said they smoked in 2010. That obviously contributes to extremely high health care costs for us all, not to mention the tragedy of premature deaths.
But on the positive side, that 19.3 percent was an improvement over the 21 percent of adults who reported that they smoked in 2005. And the percentage of people who said they smoked 30 or more cigarettes a day reportedly was down from about 13 percent to 8 percent.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Atlanta-based CDC, spelled out the dangers clearly: "About half of all smokers will be killed by tobacco if they don't quit," he said during a news conference. "You don't have to be a heavy smoker to get a smoking-related disease or have a heart attack or asthma attack. The sooner you quit smoking, the sooner your body can begin to heal."
Unfortunately, such warnings will in many cases fall on deaf ears -- especially among young smokers who may consider themselves invincible.
We have many ills we cannot readily avoid or cure. But we can avoid inviting the host of problems caused by smoking.