MILTON — The Florida Department of Health in Santa Rosa County has identified tobacco use as one of the health priorities it will address in the coming years.

According to the DOH 2016 Community Health Needs Assessment, tobacco use is the single most preventable cause of death and disease in the United States. Every year, more than 440,000 Americans die from tobacco-related illnesses, the report states.

In addition, 20 people have at least one serious tobacco-related illness per death, which equates to almost 9 million people. Annually, tobacco use reportedly costs the nation $193 billion in direct medical expenses and lost productivity.

Locally, there are approximately 34,812 tobacco users in Santa Rosa County, according to the 2012 Florida Charts update. The average smoker costs their employer a minimum of $5,800 more each year than employees who don’t smoke.

Costs to employers include increased expenses for employee health benefits, absenteeism and loss of productivity. Workers who smoke reportedly cost Santa Rosa County employers almost $202 million annually.

According to the assessment, an average smoker in Santa Rosa County spends approximately $1,965 per year on cigarettes and approximately $3,340 more on health care than non-smokers. These amounts combined represent about 15 percent of annual personal income per person in the county.

The percentage of adult smokers in Santa Rosa County that claim they use tobacco "most days" or "every day" is 24 percent, which is among the highest usage rates in Florida.

Youths in the county who claimed to have used cigarettes within the past 30 days account for 9.1 percent, while youths' use state-wide is at 6.1 percent. Youths who use smokeless tobacco in Santa Rosa County account for 6 percent, while the state is at 3.5 percent.

In 2014, the DOH recognized two goals that would assist them with making Santa Rosa County tobacco free: increase tobacco cessation rates and reduce the incidence of youth tobacco use.

To achieve these goals, the DOH had five objectives:

Increase the number of employers by a third (+2) with tobacco-free campuses and/or other worksites by June 2016
Increase by 100 percent (+3) the number of tobacco-free business policies by June 2016
Increase by 16 percent (21 classes) the number of free tobacco cessation classes by June 2016
Increase the number of smoke-free rental/leasing properties by 100 percent (+4) by June 2016
Reduce the incidence of youth tobacco use by 2 percent (840 students) by June 2016

According to the report, almost all of these objectives were reached by their target date. Six employers adopted a smoke-free policy: CVS, AppRiver, City of Milton, Santa Rosa School Board, Family Dollar stores and Lowe’s.

Two businesses adopted tobacco-free policies: City of Milton and Forsley Properties.

Four multi-unit housing areas in the county have adopted a smoke-free policy. They include Woodland Run East Apartments and The Breeze Apartments.

Schools in the county have held 22 Students Working Against Tobacco meetings since 2014. Six schools have a minimum of two SWAT meetings per month, and the high school's group usually meets weekly.