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On Campus

A life studying tobacco's hold on smokers

Dr. Thomas Brandon, Director of Tobacco Research and Intervention Program at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and University of South Florida psychology professor

By JAY CRIDLIN
Published November 9, 2004

Be careful, says Dr. Thomas Brandon, when selecting a book to help you stop smoking.

"There's a lot of junk out there," he warns. "There's all sorts of things that are just ridiculous."

Brandon and his colleagues want to change that.

Brandon, director of the Tobacco Research and Intervention Program at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, is the lead investigator on a project designed to help smokers kick the habit.

Up to 90 percent of ex-smokers relapse within a year. But a new University of South Florida study suggests that only one out of five ex-smokers relapses within two years if they read the program's "Forever Free" pamphlets, which are available from the National Cancer Institute.

Brandon, who also is a USF psychology professor, recently spoke with Times staff writer Jay Cridlin about his lifetime of studying smokers. Here are excerpts:

Do you smoke?

No, I don't. I think everybody thinks about it at one point in their life, but I never did. It's funny, because I'm always asked that question. I've been working with smokers since starting graduate school in 1982. I've worked with hundreds and hundreds of smokers. I think I have an appreciation for what they go through when they're trying to quit.

There have to be doctors and researchers out there who do smoke, though, even though they know the consequences.

Not too many anymore. There are a few smoking researchers who actually still smoke, which I find incredibly bizarre. I went to a conference of oncologists several years ago in San Francisco. What surprised me was, outside the door of this convention center, there were always three or four oncologists smoking cigarettes. It is a testament to just how addictive the drug is.

Say I'm a smoker. Persuade me to quit.

That's very hard to do. It's a legal drug, and people just don't realize the impact, because it's been around so long, and it's so frequent. We look around, we see people smoke. Smoking is the No. 1 cause of premature death and disability in this country. You've probably heard these stats before, but 440,000 Americans die every year from smoking, which is more than are killed by all other drugs - heroin, PCP, cocaine, alcohol - all driving accidents, including drunken driving, fires, AIDS, homicides and suicides combined. It's as if you have three jumbo jets crashing every single day in the United States. That's how many people are killed by smoking.

In a broad sense, can Florida quit smoking?

Well, Florida has to decide they want to devote some resources to tobacco control. They're getting hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the tobacco settlement, and during settlement negotiations, the idea was this money would go to health care and to tobacco control causes. Initially, a decent portion of it did. It looked like it had an impact. Youth smoking was declining. Then it was cut back, cut back, cut back, and finally, the last two years, it's been $1-million per year, which is just enough to keep some of the offices open, and that's about it. We have not made a commitment.

Florida would do very well to emulate some of the tobacco control measures that California's done over the years. They really invested money in anti-smoking campaigns, and the smoking rates have gone down. Now lung cancer and heart disease rates are going down. It pays off in the future. The state will save billions of dollars by investing in tobacco control now. It's really poor long-term planning, but I guess that's not atypical of politicians. You may be saving thousands of people in Florida 20 years down the road, but that doesn't help you get elected today.

Are you surprised that smoking cessation, and the requisite funding that goes along with it, didn't become an issue in this presidential campaign?

I guess I'm not surprised. The tobacco companies have done a very good job at keeping politicians in their pockets. It's been very hard, historically, to get elected officials to do what's right for smoking, because a lot of money goes into tobacco lobbying. As a citizen, that's disappointing.

Tell me about your "New Moms" study.

Most women now know they shouldn't drink while they're pregnant. And more and more women now know that they shouldn't smoke cigarettes while they're pregnant. Wonderful.

Here's the bad news, though: Almost all of them start up again after they give birth. Six months after quitting smoking, your risk of heart disease is going down, your risk of lung cancer is going down, your circulation has improved, the carbon monoxide in your blood is going back down to a normal level. It's just this wasted opportunity. It's so frustrating for me as a tobacco researcher to see that happen.

We have funding to try to develop different kinds of written materials that might be appealing to pregnant women. We're trying to reach women in their fourth to eighth month of pregnancy and have already quit smoking. Everybody will be sent some type of written materials. We're interested in their feedback. Are they able to stay off cigarettes or are they returning to smoking? It's in the early stages, but we're having a horrible time reaching these women. Pregnant women are very busy women with a lot on their mind. We need about 800 women in the study, and we've been recruiting for about six months now, and we have less than 10 percent of that.

Your daughter is 8, right? Ten years from now, how do you react if she becomes a smoker?

Just this morning, she was asked to participate in some anti-smoking message at their elementary school's little in-house television show that they broadcast to the kids in the morning. She went on to share with other kids some of the things to say if someone asks you to have a cigarette. Things like, "I like being healthy.' "Smoking stinks.' In preparation for this, we had a big talk. She knew I worked with smokers but didn't really understand it. We talked about how what she is doing might actually end up saving some child's life.

So you're not worried about her?

Well, you never can predict. You always worry about a child rebelling. What better way to rebel against a parent who's a tobacco researcher and therapist than to start smoking. (laughs). I worry about that a little bit. But not in the near future, I don't think. She's got a good head on her shoulders.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

For a copy of the "Forever Free" pamphlets, call 1-877-448-7848 or visit www.smokefree.gov To participate in the "New Moms" study, call 1-877-954-2548.

[Last modified November 9, 2004, 05:37:24]


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