University of Minnesota

“It Isn’t Always Fun.” – Lab Smoking Policy

Ancient Policy on Smoking and Eating

I recently found a yellowed legal pad on which I had outlined comments to make at a meeting of LPH faculty and staff as we faced the issue of establishing a smoke-free environment in the Lab, a touchy personal-rights issue back in March of 1978. To illustrate this early quandary, I quote from those notes:

The reason for our special meeting today is to announce new LPH policy about smoking in the Lab, a matter of much concern and some embarrassment to many.

Why concern?

We are one of 20 long-term NIH-funded smoking cessation clinics nationally, and one of very few where smoking is still visible to the people we are trying to help quit smoking. It has become a matter of their motivation and of our credibility. Is it logical or appropriate: for us to:

• accept a half-million dollars a year for 19 fte staff avowed and contractually dedicated to the purpose of achieving healthy lifestyles in our clinic participants, while we visibly flaunt smoking, the most unhealthy and obtrusive of behaviors?

• teach our students the risks of smoking and how to get people to stop smoking in a center where we smoke on the premises?

• receive distinguished guests who come to learn how we promote health in this Mecca where we visibly smoke?

• testify before Congress and among the public on the public health impact of smoking when we are not ourselves smoke-free?

• confront hundreds of Twin City families with their many personal rationalizations for continued smoking and try to rationalize our institutional smoking behavior? They rationalize, for example, as follows:

“I don’t smoke that much.”

“It’s my body to treat as I like.”

“If I stop I’ll gain weight.”

“I figure my odds are pretty good since my grandfather smoked till age 94 and got hit by a bus.”

“My spouse won’t quit.”

“It calms me.”  Etc. etc.

Yes, it also is an embarrassment. We’ve been a MRFIT clinic for 5 years. Moreover, it is more than a decade since the Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking. We have 30 years of renown from documenting the risk of smoking and other unhealthy lifestyles. And, finally, we have decades of evolution in the smoking habits among our own faculty. Let me cite some examples of the latter:

Prof. Keys had a pipe rack and exotic cigarette blends in his office until the early 1970s. I occasionally smoked at my desk until 1972. Henry Taylor was a respiratory cripple but rejoined the living when he stopped smoking. Our national colleague, Harriet Dustan, smoked well into the year she was elected President of the American Heart Association.

So we come with some personal experience and understanding of tobacco habituation. The dawning among us was gradual that we have both a personal and an institutional obligation that transcends the individual “right to smoke.” It is now established University policy that we are able to make non-smoking a criterion for new employment in the intervention activities of our Lab.

So, this new policy seeks to involve us all in an institutional responsibility to the public, in our contractual obligations for research, and in our mission to prevent disease and promote health. We understand the hardship the policy will mean to some. We have surveyed all faculty and staff in an anonymous query in which you all participated. The faculty is unanimous in support of the smoke-free policy. The majority of staff reports they understand the issue. Many wondered why we wait, or survey opinions, and, as they put it, shilly-shally over setting this policy.

Consequently, the policy will go into force on May 1. Meanwhile a special cessation clinic will be made available to staff, led by our three able specialists who make this their career. There will be no breath tests and no firings for continued smokers. Just consider this homely analogy to smoking: “Don’t kiss your sweetheart in church. Wait till you’re home on the porch swing.”

What’s Next?

Now the questionnaire has raised for a few of you the specter of: “Today smoking. Tomorrow what?” In fact, John Vilandre, a long-term staff member, circulated a letter recently about the display of gooey commercial baked goods in the Lab snacks provided for tea time. As he put it, he was embarrassed for our Lab, which in its distinguished history has:

• “discovered” cholesterol;

  developed the Keys Equation: fat effects on blood cholesterol;

  promoted a healthy eating pattern worldwide.

Suffice it to say, there will not be any Lab policy on individual eating habits! But as institutional policy we will consider the consistency with our science and our mission of the foods we prepare and offer for formal and public Lab functions. At the very least, there will always be “healthy” choices among the foods available.

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