U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy’s father smoked despite being a doctor. Murthy and his sister used to cut their father’s cigarettes in half to try to force him to stop.
Murthy was one of a few health officials who shared personal stories around smoking at Gateway Community College Thursday morning on a panel discussion about the history and impact of federal anti-smoking messaging. The discussion happened two days after the federal Food and Drug Administration decided to stop the distribution of four tobacco products, because they did not meet public health requirements.
According to the Center for Disease Control, 17.8 percent of U.S. adults smoke cigarettes, meaning around 42.1 million individuals.
Murthy said most people, like his father, smoke because of an emotional attachment to the habit rather than intellectual arguments for it. To really change people’s actions, officials should focus on determining why people, especially in vulnerable populations, smoke and how to provide them with resources to stop, he said.
“People don’t make reasoned decisions about the pros and cons,” he said. “Part of what we’re trying to shift is culture.”
He listed three challenges in getting people to quit: people’s lack of belief that they have control of their own health, the national focus on treatment rather than prevention, and “the myth that the battle against big tobacco has been won.” The tobacco industry has recently made the most profit
State Medicaid Director Kate McEvoy said smoking is also a personal issue for her—both sets of her grandparents died in their mid-60s from tobacco-related illnesses. Her parents, who did not smoke, have outlived them by more than 15 years, she said.
The Affordable Care Act has catalyzed states to cover a broader ranger of tobacco cessation services, she said, “meeting people where they are” in the process of quitting.
The city has been working on a multi-step plan to make New Haven tobacco-free by raising awareness about the harms of smoking, helping smokers quit and keeping kids from starting.
In May, the Board of Alders passed an ordinance outlawing tobacco products—including e-cigarettes—from government buildings, playgrounds, sports fields, school grounds and Lighthouse Park. The city can restrict smokers to specific spaces within those public areas.
This year, Southern Connecticut State University and the University of New Haven have declared their campuses smoke-free. Gateway was the first community college to make its campus smoke-free, including e-cigarettes, in 2012.
The FDA is also looking at how to regulate e-cigarettes, Murthy said. Teachers have asked him how to stop students from smoking them in class, since there are few local or school policies to regulate the product.
Though the data are murky on whether e-cigarettes are useful tools for quitting smoking, kids who have never used tobacco should not be using e-cigarettes, he said.
State public health Commissioner Jewel Mullen said grassroots and community mobilization could be a faster tool for regulating e-cigarettes than waiting for state leaders to pass laws. That mobilization could be the “community version of taking a pair of scissors and cutting a cigarette,” she said.
“It will take more than just money to counter what the tobacco industry can do,” she said.