Brooklyn Heights

OPINION: The St. Francis approach to ending the tobacco epidemic

November 24, 2015 By Dr. Michele Montecalvo For Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Dr. Michele Montecalvo. Photo courtesy of Dr. Montecalvo
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How do you make a 40 year old public health message relatable to young people? How do you inform young people that the lies told to them by Big Tobacco about vaping and e-cigarettes today are mirror images of the lies their grandparents were told by Big Tobacco decades ago? How do we offer support, guidance and resources for tobacco harm reduction with a modern sexy approach that will help young people take the steps necessary to reduce their smoking habit? 

These are difficult questions, with difficult answers. At this point, we know plenty about tobacco and nicotine — it’s addictive and dangerous. The Great American Smoke Out is as old as I am — 40 years old. And in those 40 years, a model has been developed by the American Cancer Society to help people to quit smoking for a day. I actually own a Larry Hagman rubber band bracelet that was distributed to smokers (in the early 1980s) to “snap” every time they felt the urge to smoke. What a fabulous idea at the time: a clear public health message using the influence of a popular television actor and television show to help people change their habits. Did it work? Perhaps, but the broader reflection is that after four long and hard decades fighting tobacco companies and their ubiquitous marketing — what have we learned? The lessons from the field tell us that quitting smoking is hard. That quitting for the day with social support may help you quit for the next goal, perhaps until Thanksgiving. And that the underlying issue with every addiction is a release from stress.  

My grandmother smoked for over 60 years. My mother smoked while I was growing up. My father still smokes. I truly understand how difficult it can be to break this habit despite knowing how harmful it is. Furthermore, how do we expect smokers to ask for support now that we live in a world of more technology and less face-to-face communications? The answer to the underlying question of how do we best offer support is simple for me: by allowing the individual to self-monitor without judgement. We must provide support with no expectation of change. That is the Franciscan (St. Francis College) way, and the model I learned early in my career as a health educator. There is no religious implication here, but rather the concept of personal motivation as the guide for all.

On my campus, St. Francis College in Downtown Brooklyn, we are partnering with the leaders in tobacco education to use what we know best: compassion (first and foremost), as well as the knowledge of the negative effects of smoking, to inform our community about the new lies being told to young people about vaping and e-cigarettes. Vaping and smoking e-cigarettes are no different, in our opinion, from smoking a conventional cigarette, unlike what Big Tobacco would like you to think. Our heart is open at St. Francis College for all interested in learning about how to use support, including nicotine replacement products (patches, gum, lozenges, etc.) and to also use your time doing other exciting things instead of smoking.  Replace a negative health habit with a positive health habit: go for a walk, repeat a positive mantra like “I quit like a Champion” (the message from this year’s GASO campaign from the American Cancer Society), read a book, crochet, catch up with your family or play a sport. Another way that St. Francis College supports smoke-free living and maintains an environment that encourages quitting is by having a tobacco-free campus. A tobacco-free campus policy prohibits all forms of tobacco use anywhere on campus property, including smokeless forms and electronic smoking devices such as e-cigarettes. We cannot forget that tobacco use is still the leading cause of preventable death and disease in Brooklyn and beyond. At St. Francis, we believe through this policy we can help to reverse this terrible human and economic toll, which affects the entire college community in one way or another. We are working with the nonprofit organization NYC Smoke-Free at Public Health Solutions to strengthen our policy in order to uphold a campus that nurtures every aspect of our students’ development. 

Most of all, in light of this year’s Great American Smoke Out, our heart extends love to anyone trying to reduce their smoking habit. We know it’s hard, and we are here to support you. 

Dr. Michele Montecalvo is an assistant professor in the Department of Biology, Health Promotion and Healthcare Management at St. Francis College in Brooklyn Heights

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