PROFILE: KARLA SNEEGAS: Clearing the murky air ITPC director leads charge toward smoke-free Indiana

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PROFILE KARLA SNEEGAS Clearing the murky air ITPC director leads charge toward smoke-free Indiana

Karla Sneegas is primed for battle. With the fervor of an ancient Crusader, this pint-sized warrior is fighting a “just war” to reduce Indiana’s addiction to tobacco as executive director of the Indiana Tobacco Prevention and Cessation agency.

At 4 feet, 11 inches, Sneegas is well-prepared for all foes. She’s armed with knowledge learned as a public health professional and as former director of South Carolina’s tobacco-prevention program.

The Milltown, Ind., native taught for a short time before following her husband’s career to Atlanta and then South Carolina, where she headed up the nutrition-education training program for the state department of education. In 1992, she was appointed director of a new smoking-prevention and cessation program funded by a grant from the American Cancer Institute.

“There was a study being done by the National Cancer Institute called ASSIST, which was the largest tobacco control program ever done,” Sneegas said. Seventeen states-including South Carolina and Indiana-received grants to implement programs. To say that starting a prevention program in tobacco-growing South Carolina was hard is an understatement, Sneegas said.

“This is an area that raised a lot of tobacco. Just opening your mouth and saying, ‘Quit smoking’ was controversial.” As hard as it was, however, Sneegas knew she had found her passion-fueled by the loss of her beloved grandfather who died from lung cancer that had metastasized into his brain.

In 1995, Sneegas’s husband accepted a job offer in Indianapolis at technology firm Whitman-Hart. After returning to Indiana, Sneegas worked on a grant through the American Heart Association to advocate for a portion of the tobacco settlement funds to be used for prevention and cessation programs.

From her work and the work of others, Indiana Tobacco Prevention and Cessation was born. She was an original board member and became executive director in 2001.

Funding ups and downs

Through 2005, Indiana had received more than $812 million from the Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement, according to the Government Accounting Office, but the number has been trending down.

Initial funding for the ITPC in fiscal 2001 was $35 million, but by 2003 the agency saw a decrease to $15 million, with more funds being diverted to other state health programs. That same year the American Lung Association ranked Indiana seventh among the top 10 most disappointing tobacco prevention program cuts.

The continuing reductions meant that Sneegas and her staff had to work leaner to get out their tobacco cessation messages to the nation’s second-highestsmoking population, just behind neighboring Kentucky.

Sneegas is “so personally knowledgeable and such an effective leader,” she has been able to weather the funding ups and downs, said Bill Corr, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. “There are few tobacco-prevention leaders in the country who could have taken that dramatically reduced agency and continued to lead it effectively,” Corr said. “They have demonstrated that even as a $10 million organization-much less as a $30 million organization-they know how to promote changes in attitudes and policies in helping our children and adults quit smoking.”

When Corr entered the field seven years ago, he was told to seek out Sneegas on how to go about the difficult task of tobacco prevention and cessation.

“She is really one of the international leaders in terms of approaching tobacco prevention and cessation using sciencebased methods,” Corr said. “Karla has done as good a job as anyone in the country in taking the knowledge base and turning it into an effective day-in and day-out program. That’s a real talent.”

Peggy Voelz, coordinator of Bartholomew County’s tobacco prevention program, said it was Sneegas who motivated her to get into the tobacco control field. Voelz said Sneegas keeps her staff and volunteers “connected, informed and excited about what we’re doing.”

“She never seems to lose energy,” Voelz said. “When you’re in tobacco control, it can be trying and stressful, especially during times like the last legislative session, when we were trying to get a cigarette tax through.”

That cigarette-tax increase means a 50-percent increase in funding for ITPC for the next two years, and Sneegas is delighted. She’s also encouraged by the changing attitude of business leaders, policymakers and state residents toward creating smoke-free workplaces and communities.

“People understand that, regardless of whether or not they smoke, Indiana’s high smoking rate is impacting them,” Sneegas said. It affects them, she said, through higher taxes to care for people who don’t have health coverage. It also affects their own health and the health of their families as well as having economic development implications as businesses look to communities for expansion and a healthy work force.

She admits that reducing Indiana’s smoking rate is difficult. “Sometimes non-smokers don’t realize how incredibly addictive tobacco is-more addictive than cocaine.” But she remains optimistic that the tide is turning.

“We have a different environment than we had six years ago,” Sneegas said. “Look at the fact that nearly 50 percent of the people in the state now live in cities that have smoke-free air ordinances. We have a phenomenal opportunity right now with the cigarette tax and additional funding to make a difference right now, but we need the help of everyone to capitalize on that opportunity.”

Maintaining balance important

While Sneegas’s passion for tobacco cessation and prevention is obvious to anyone she meets, she works to maintain balance in her hectic life. Her husband, 20-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son keep her grounded, she said, “and I have two dogs who love me. No matter how bad the day’s been, when I walk in, they’re so glad to see me,” she said with a laugh.

In her spare time-what little she has-Sneegas likes to read, spend time outdoors and do family genealogy. She plans to visit some of her ancestors’ villages this summer while visiting Germany, where her daughter is completing an Indiana University study abroad program.

As she looks ahead to her 50th birthday next year, Sneegas chuckles at some of the beliefs she held when first starting down her career path.

“I’ve always thought that one of the funniest things is you spend so much time early in your career going towards something, but there are some things that aren’t achievable,” she said. “I thought when I reached this point in my career, I would understand the challenges so much better and know the magical answers.”

What Sneegas does hope to achieve is a major reduction in Indiana’s smoking rate. She knows there’s lots of work ahead, and her wish is to drive down Indiana’s smoking rate to below the national average of 20.6 percent from its current 27.3 percent rate.

“I’d like it to be zero,” she said, “but let’s be reasonable. For us to be able to get to that point would be phenomenal.”

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