NOTIONS: Let's clear the air at state schools

November 27, 2006

Long ago, I did some work for Special Olympics. In the process, I learned a semantic preference of the organization: One never says "mentally retarded people." One says "people with mental retardation." The rationale: These athletes are people first, not a condition.

Long ago, I also did AIDS education and prevention work. In the process, I learned a semantic preference of health organizations and their clients: One never says "AIDS victims." One says "people with AIDS." The rationale: Those with AIDS are people first, not a disease.

Which brings me to my friend who smokes. When I hear people label him as merely "a smoker," it hurts, because he is so much more than what he inhales. He is a person first, not an addiction.

A few weeks ago, my friend wrote a funny piece on his blog. Because he must stand outside his smoke-free workplace to smoke, he called himself "a pariah." But he said that he has become a valuable ambassador for our community. That's because out-of-town visitors often ask him for directions and restaurant recommendations. And he's happy to help.

A few weeks ago, my friend told me he quit smoking once. He said he stayed off cigarettes for a long time. Then, during a poker game, he bummed one off a fellow player. Bam, he was hooked again.

Last week, a client told me he'd quit smoking, too. After a long addiction, he'd stayed off cigarettes for five years, but craved them every day. Eventually, the nicotine won and he started again. Then he quit the second time, and hasn't smoked for decades.

One need not hear many such stories to empathize with people who smoke. This is powerfully addictive stuff, rendered more so by cynical tobacco companies that run ads saying "don't do this" while concurrently goosing up nicotine levels to increase addiction (or so said a recent Massachusetts government study).

While I feel the pain of people who smoke, my sympathy ends when it comes to subsidizing their addiction and making it convenient. And that's exactly what we're doing in Indiana.

Last week, I talked with Purdue University Dean of Nursing Julie Novak who, in a previous job, interviewed 18,000 people who smoke as part of a research project. Novak told me that 70 percent to 80 percent of these individuals are at some stage of quitting: trying to, wanting to, having succeeded, etc. She said many who smoke actually welcome smoke-free workplace laws because they provide yet another incentive to kick the habit.

As a result, Novak said, we need to erect every barrier possible between people who smoke and the tobacco products they crave. It's the best way to protect the lives, health and livelihoods not only of people who smoke, but also of people who involuntarily inhale secondhand smoke.

Gov. Mitch Daniels last week triggered one such barrier. He asked state legislators to significantly increase Indiana's too-low-for-too-long cigarette tax. He said proceeds would be used to fund smoking prevention and cessation programs, child immunizations and health care for the uninsured.

"Indiana can't be a healthy state with the second-highest rate of smoking in the country," Daniels said, "And we can't lower our smoking rate when we sell some of the cheapest cigarettes in America."

Naturally, a spokesperson for tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. told the Associated Press his company doesn't like the idea. "We oppose these unfair and discriminatory tax increases, especially when smokers are generating enormous amounts of revenue for the state," he said.

While I can understand how a nicotine dealer might feel that way, the reverse is, of course, more accurate: Nonsmokers are paying unfair and discriminatory taxes and health insurance premiums to subsidize the cost of disease and death wrought by tobacco companies.

As state government wrestles with an increased cigarette tax to enhance lives and reduce health costs, many health care and higher-education institutions-institutions funded, in part, by state dollars-are struggling to enact smoking barriers of their own.

Last week, for example, after considerable deliberation, Fort Wayne's two health systems -Parkview and Lutheran-followed Clarian Health's Indianapolis example and announced they'll switch to smoke-free campuses.

Gov. Daniels already has declared the state office complex smoke-free.

But among Indiana's state universities, only IUPUI has mustered the political courage necessary to buck the tobacco lobby and tell students, faculty, staff and guests, "You may not sicken and kill yourselves and others by spewing toxic chemicals on our campus."

For people producing MBAs and Ph.D.s, the equation should be simple: If nearly 80 percent of college students don't smoke, and if nearly 80 percent of those who do want to quit, and if state government wants to help by making smoking expensive and inconvenient, then our state universities should follow suit by concurrently making all their campuses smoke-free.

Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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