Archived Messages

Messages from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris

World No Tobacco Day Focuses on Quitting Tobacco

Tobacco is bad for you. I know that, and you know that.

That is the reason I want to convince all tobacco users to quit for at least a day on Thursday, May 31, World No Tobacco Day. It is an annual event that is exactly what it sounds like – one day, no tobacco around the world every year. The idea is to raise awareness about the health risks associated with tobacco use. I hope that every user of tobacco will consider it, and give it a try by abstaining from all tobacco products on that day.

In the United States, cigarette smoking is declining. The use of other tobacco products, however, has remained unchanged or has increased in recent years, and there are disparities in tobacco use across population groups.

Tobacco use continues to be the leading cause of preventable death in Alabama, killing in excess of 8,600 smokers and costing the state more than $1.88 billion in direct medical expenses to treat smoking-related diseases each year.

The Alabama Department of Public Health Tobacco Prevention and Control Program works to help tobacco users quit, prevent youth and young adults from starting tobacco use, and protect people from exposure to secondhand smoke. We also have a great resource for those who need help quitting tobacco – the Alabama Tobacco Quitline. You can call toll-free at 1-800-QUIT-NOW ( 1-800-784-8669) or go online at

The Quitline helps callers develop an individualized quit plan, offers coaching, and provides up to eight weeks of nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) patches if the user is medically eligible and enrolled in the coaching program. All Quitline services are free to Alabama residents.

If the caller is eligible for NRT, it is mailed directly to the caller’s home. Medicaid callers are referred to Medicaid for their cessation medications. Quitline services are available every day from 6 a.m. to midnight, with calls placed after hours or on holidays returned the next business day. The Quitline schedules telephone coaching sessions at the caller’s convenience.

Thousands of Alabamians have already called and are now living tobacco free. You can quit too. Start with one day and go from there as the first step toward a healthier, longer, tobacco-free life. There is no downside to quitting tobacco, and the benefits are priceless.

(May 2018)

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Distracted Driving: A Leading Cause of Crashes

Each day in the United States, approximately 9 people are killed and more than 1,000 people are injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver.

Distracted driving is driving while doing any activity that takes one’s attention away from driving, increasing the chance of a crash. A driver’s eyes, ears, and complete attention are all required for safe driving. Distractions can include visually taking eyes off the road, manually taking hands off the steering wheel, and even cognitively taking one’s mind off driving.

During daylight hours, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones while driving. That creates an enormous potential for deaths and injuries. Hands-free phone use is also distracting because it takes the driver’s mind off the road.

Texting is the most alarming distraction. Sending or reading a text takes one’s eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 miles per hour, that is similar to driving the length of an entire football field blindfolded. Alabama’s texting while driving law prohibits using a wireless device to write, send, or read a text message, instant message, or e-mail while operating a motor vehicle.1 Fines are imposed and a two-point violation will be placed on the offender’s driving record.

Other common distractions that are known to cause or contribute to driver injuries and deaths include the following:

  • Passengers - the likelihood of a crash goes up with each additional passenger in the vehicle
  • Using in-vehicle technologies, such as navigation systems
  • Eating or drinking
  • Adjusting the radio, CD player, or temperature controls
  • Listening to loud music or using headphones
  • Grooming or applying makeup
  • Lighting cigarettes – harmful in many ways

Teens are the least experienced drivers and were the largest age group reported as being distracted at the wheel at the time of fatal crashes. Distracted driving is one of the three primary contributing factors to teen driver deaths, along with the use of alcohol and not wearing a seatbelt, so it is important to talk to teen drivers about these dangers. Learn about other contributing factors in teen driver crashes, injuries, and fatalities, on the Teen Driving Facts and Figures page.

Driving is an important and potentially dangerous activity that requires attention and focus from the driver at all times. Everyone should give the responsibility of driving his or her full attention, because any non-driving activity is a potential distraction that increases crash risk.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(April 2018)

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Reduce Risk of Age-related Macular Degeneration and Related Vision Loss

Age-related macular degeneration, or AMD, is the leading cause of blindness in older Americans, affecting more than 2 million people age 50 and older. It causes damage to the macula, a small spot near the center of the retina and the part of the eye needed for sharp, central vision.

Symptoms include blurriness, dark areas in vision, and distortion. Over time, the blurred area may grow larger or the person may develop blank spots in central vision. Objects also may not appear to be as bright as before.

Researchers have found links between AMD and some lifestyle choices. There is currently no known cure for macular degeneration, but there are things one can do to reduce its risk and possibly slow its progression after diagnosis that include the following:

  • Avoid smoking
  • Exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight
  • Maintain normal blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Eat a healthy diet rich in green, leafy vegetables and fish
  • Have regular eye exams

Vision loss is ranked among the top 10 causes of disability in the U.S. AMD by itself does not lead to complete blindness; however, the loss of central vision in AMD can interfere with simple, everyday activities such as the ability to see familiar faces, drive, read, write, or do close work.

According to the National Eye Institute, age is a major risk factor for AMD. While the disease is most likely to occur after age 60, it can occur earlier. Other risk factors for AMD are as follows:

  • Smoking. Research shows that smoking doubles the risk of AMD.
  • Race/Ethnicity. AMD is more common among Caucasians than among African Americans or Hispanics/Latinos.
  • Family History/Genetics. People with a family history of AMD are at higher risk. At last count, researchers had identified nearly 20 genes that can affect the risk of developing AMD. Many more genetic risk factors are suspected. Because AMD is influenced by so many genes plus environmental factors such as smoking and nutrition, currently no genetic tests can diagnose AMD, or predict with certainty who will develop it.

On a positive note, new treatments over the past 10 years have dramatically changed the course of AMD. In addition, low vision aids such as magnifiers and telescopic glasses can make the most of remaining vision, helping make AMD more manageable than ever before.

Early and intermediate stages of AMD usually start without symptoms, so make an appointment with an ophthalmologist for a dilated eye exam today.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(March 2018)

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Modify Your Lifestyle for a Healthier Heart

Heart disease is the single leading cause of death in Alabama, and our state has the second highest rate of deaths related to heart disease across the entire nation. These statistics might sound alarming, but the good news is that coronary artery disease is highly preventable by modifying risk factors.

The American Heart Association lists the following seven major risk factors for coronary heart disease:

  • Cigarette and tobacco smoke
  • High blood cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Physical inactivity
  • Overweight or obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Lack of a healthful diet

Tobacco use is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Smoking increases the risk of heart disease, and when it acts with other factors, it greatly increases risk. Smoking increases blood pressure, decreases exercise tolerance, and increases the tendency for blood to clot. Free assistance is available by visiting or calling 1-800-Quit-Now (1-800-784-8669) for those who would like to stop smoking. Information and counseling sessions are confidential. Those who begin counseling can receive, if medically eligible, a free, eight-week supply of the nicotine patch to assist in their attempt to quit.

Two-thirds of Alabamians are overweight or obese, which puts them at risk for cardiovascular disease. Choose foods low in saturated fat, trans fat, and sodium, the American Heart Association advises. As part of a healthy diet, eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, fiber-rich whole grains, fish(preferably oily fish-at least twice per week), nuts, legumes, and seeds. Try eating some meals without meat, and select lower fat dairy products and poultry (skinless). Limit sugar-sweetened beverages and red meat.

Be sure to exercise. Being physically active is one of the most important steps to take to improve health – and the good news is that physical activity is anything that gets a body moving. Regular physical activity can produce long-term health benefits, such as a reduced risk for chronic disease, lower stress levels, and weight loss.

It is recommended that adults get 150 minutes of physical activity per week. Despite busy schedules, there are easy ways to get the suggested amount. Walking a dog, washing a car, gardening, raking leaves, taking the steps instead of the elevator, and working up a sweat playing a favorite sport are all examples of physical activity. The key is to start small, just move 10 minutes at a time, and then work up to more activity for a longer amount of time. Exercise should be a part of everyone’s personal routine.

Some risk factors, such as age, sex, and heredity, cannot be changed, so it is even more important to manage modifiable risk factors. Authorities agree that a long-term, healthy lifestyle is the best defense against these risks.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(February 2018)

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Be Antibiotics Aware in 2018

The Alabama Department of Public Health joins the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a campaign to encourage patients, families, and health care professionals to learn about safe antibiotic prescribing and use.

Each year in the United States, at least 2 million people are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and at least 23,000 die as a result. Antibiotic resistance, one of the most urgent threats to the public’s health, occurs when bacteria no longer respond to the drugs designed to kill them.

The Be Antibiotics Aware campaign provides educational resources to help health care professionals improve antibiotic prescribing. Be Antibiotics Aware also educates the public on what illnesses antibiotics treat, how to take antibiotics appropriately, and that antibiotics can have minor to very severe side effects.

Antibiotics are critical tools for treating common infections, such as pneumonia, and for life-threatening conditions including sepsis. Antibiotics are only needed for treating certain infections caused by bacteria. Antibiotics will not help some common bacterial infections including most cases of bronchitis, many sinus infections, and some ear infections.

Any time antibiotics are used, they can cause side effects and lead to antibiotic resistance. When antibiotics are not needed, they will not help, and there can be harmful side effects. Common side effects range from rashes and yeast infections to severe health problems such as Clostridium difficile infection (also called C. difficile or C. diff), which causes diarrhea that can lead to severe colon damage and death.

Take antibiotics exactly as prescribed. Patients and families should talk with their health care professional if they have any questions about their antibiotics, or if they develop side effects, especially diarrhea, since that could be C. difficile, which needs to be treated.

Antibiotics are not effective in treating viruses, such as colds and flu, or runny noses, even if the mucus is thick, yellow, or green. Respiratory viruses usually go away in a week or two without treatment. Patients and families can ask their health care provider about the best way to feel better while their body fights off the virus.

Keep yourself and others healthy by practicing the following:

  • Cleaning your hands
  • Covering your coughs
  • Staying home when sick
  • Getting recommended vaccines--for example, for influenza

Antibiotics save lives. When a patient needs antibiotics, the benefits outweigh the risks of side effects and antibiotic resistance.

To learn more about Be Antibiotics Aware resources and antibiotic prescribing and use, visit Improving the way antibiotics are taken helps people stay healthy now, helps fight antibiotic resistance, and ensures that life-saving antibiotics will be available for future generations.

Scott Harris, M.D.
State Health Officer

(January 2018)

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Page last updated: June 5, 2018