Portland councilors saw something, did something. Kids will live longer because they did

See something, say something.”

It’s a simple idea: If you see something that seems out of place, unusual or potentially dangerous, it makes sense to tell someone.

We hear this when it comes to some of the most deadly scourges: terrorism, domestic violence, child abuse and suicide.

But it actually goes much further than that. We teach our kids to stand up against bullies, to say something if a friend is in trouble and to advocate for what they think is right.

“See something, say something” is the exact opposite of “Go along to get along.” It’s all about rocking the boat.

The idea behind the simple phrase is that all of us are empowered to make a difference, and it recognizes that we all have an obligation to the collective good.

But getting involved — seeing a problem and doing something about it — goes beyond the instant crisis where intervention could stop a terror attack or a suicide.

It can touch even day-to-day decisions that impact our lives.

Once you have information about a problem, you can either take action or let things go along as they have been and accept the consequences. If you have the facts and decide to do nothing, you become complicit.

But when it comes to the laws and regulations that help to govern daily life, the pull of “go along to get along” is strong.

On Monday night, the Portland City Council stopped going along with a public health threat that jeopardizes kids in the community.

Councilors voted unanimously to raise the legal age for people to buy tobacco in the city from 18 to 21.

Cigarette butts in an ashtray in Portland's Monument Square. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Cigarette butts in an ashtray in Portland’s Monument Square. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

It wasn’t long before the insults started rolling in. Critics called Portland a “nanny state,” and the city was derided for being unfriendly to businesses and to consumers. And the effectiveness of the ordinance was challenged: “People will just go over to Westbrook or South Portland for their cigarettes,” many have said.

Maybe. Maybe not.

It used to be that a night out at a restaurant or bar meant coming home saturated with cigarette smoke, whether you ever lit up yourself. But in 1998, Portland banned smoking in restaurants. The claims of driving business away were the same.

The complaints were the same. But now it’s hard to imagine that it was ever legal to smoke in a place of public accommodation, like a restaurant.

Employees aren’t exposed to secondhand smoke and customers don’t come home smelling like an ashtray. And instead of driving businesses out of the city, the initiative spread to others and Portland led the way.

Here’s the thing. We know that smoking is a deadly addiction. Maine should be proud that it has invested in anti-smoking efforts and that our state has cut teen smoking rates to below the national average.

But even so, there’s more that needs to be done.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, every day more than 3,200 people under 18 smoke their first cigarette, and about 2,100 youth and young adults become daily smokers. Nine out of 10 smokers start before the age of 18, and 98 percent start smoking by age 26.

The death toll is shocking. More than 5.6 million children alive today will ultimately die early from smoking, according to HHS. That’s equal to one child out of every 13 alive in the U.S. today.

We also know that smoking cuts lives short by 10 years, and causes one out of every five deaths in the U.S., claiming 480,000 lives annually.

Portland’s ordinance will not stop every young person from smoking, but it will make it harder for some. Every new smoker who’s deterred is a step in the right direction, a life potentially extended or saved.

Faced with such striking numbers — a death toll that far exceeds the number of deaths at the hands of terrorists — and with evidence that raising the smoking age can make a difference, the Portland City Council had a choice: “See something, say something,” or just go along with the way things are.

The council members chose to do something, and years from now there will be folks who never started smoking who will live longer and healthier lives because they did.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.