There was a time in Charles when tobacco was king. The leaf was a pillar of the local economy, and although most of the tobacco produced locally wound up in Europe, plenty of folks here got and kept the habit of smoking. That led to a not-so-pleasant tradition: cancer.

Maryland began in 2001 a 10-year program to buy out tobacco farmers. One of its stated goals was helping farmers transition into other crops. That program proved to be marginally successful, but the state also pumped money into anti-smoking programs. That push toward prevention has continued, even though the buyout ended seven years ago. Part of that has been the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act, which was passed 11 years ago, essentially banning indoor smoking at bars, restaurants and most businesses.

All over America, fewer people are smoking than in decades past, when advertising on TV and in magazines once made lighting up seem sophisticated and cool, even healthy. But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 34.3 million Americans still smoke cigarettes — and tobacco use remains the single largest preventable cause of disease and premature death in the United States.

But Maryland took an important step this year to stopping smoking among young people. The General Assembly passed legislation raising the legal purchasing age of tobacco products from 18 to 21.

In Charles, the number of cigarette smokers dropped from 19.3% in 2012 to 13.1% in 2016, below the state figure of 13.7%, according to the 2018 Charles County Community Health Needs Assessment Report. Those numbers, including the national total, are down from bygone days, but still cause for concern. And vaping is under scrutiny as a not-so-safe alternative. According to the CDC, young people who vape are much more likely to start smoking.

To raise awareness of the dangers of tobacco, tomorrow, Thursday, Nov. 21, is the Great American Smokeout. The American Cancer Society uses this day to challenge smokers. Give it up for a day, they say, and maybe you can quit for good.

Also, the Charles County health department makes plenty of resources and information available. Free quit tobacco classes are offered regularly throughout the year. Call 301-609-6932 or go to www.charlescountyhealth.org/health-services/smoking-cessation/ for more information.

Maryland offers a free Tobacco Quitline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW, available 24 hours a day, seven days per week, to support anyone who would like to quit tobacco. They’re there to talk you down before you light up.

According to the CDC, tobacco use in the United States causes about 480,000 deaths each year — or nearly one in every five deaths in this country. Smokers die an average of 13 years sooner than their nonsmoking counterparts, according to the CDC.

But quitting smoking turns things around. The CDC says after a smoke-free year, the risk of coronary trouble is cut in half. After five years, the risk of cancer of the mouth, throat, esophagus and bladder are reduced by half. After 10 years, the chance of lung cancer has been cut in half. Finally, if a smoker remains an ex-smoker for 15 years, the risk of coronary disease is the same as that of a person who never smoked.

But of course, quitting smoking is hard. It’s a chemical addiction to nicotine, and like making any other major lifestyle change, is not to be taken lightly. And everyone behind the Great American Smokeout knows that. It’s all designed to inform and help, not to judge or preach.

So if you smoke now, be a quitter for a day tomorrow. Maybe it’s a habit that will stick.