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April 1, 2004

Bradford Staffer Leads Charge Against Smoking

Bonnie McMillen is a woman on a mission.

She’s leading the charge against student tobacco use at Pitt’s Bradford campus. In a year-long campaign, funded by a $30,000 grant from the Partnership for a Clean McKean (the county where Bradford is located), McMillen and a group of staff and faculty formed a tobacco task force to help students who smoke or use other tobacco products to quit, and to discourage non-smokers from starting.

McMillen’s stake in the fight is both professional and personal. “This program is a labor of love,” said McMillen, who is director of health services and a former heavy smoker. “I know how hard it is to quit, and also how important it is to quit.”

Among McMillen’s foot soldiers are five students, armed with anti-tobacco warnings and advice, who bring a peer-to-peer influence to the cause. They are compiling tobacco use and attitude surveys that will be analyzed by Clarion University’s Health Science and Education Department, which is coordinating the state university system’s anti-tobacco programs.

McMillen and five other staff members attended Clarion University workshops for background information on the risks of cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and second-hand smoke, the nature of tobacco addiction, strategies for relieving stress and aids to wean tobacco users from their addictions.

“Before this program, we didn’t really have a counseling program devoted to tobacco,” she said. “Now we have 13 students who are getting counseling, which is a large number on our small campus. We also are getting the word out with a number of activities and events that tie into the anti-tobacco theme.”

As a former two-pack a day smoker until she quit cold turkey 24 years ago, she empathizes with people trying to quit. “I know how awful they feel, especially in the first few days after they’ve quit,” McMillen said. “But one difference is that nicotine patches and gum and other anti-smoking tools and strategies didn’t exist back in 1980 when I quit.

“We also have much more information on the dangers of using tobacco, much more information on how the cigarette industry has targeted younger people to replace smokers who have died, how cigarettes have ingredients in them to get nicotine to the blood stream quicker and increase addiction.”

Her program takes a more holistic approach to overcoming tobacco addition. “We always say the big lie is that smoking calms you down, but cigarettes actually do the opposite. And people say they smoke to relieve stress, but smoking doesn’t relieve stress, it only satisfies the craving for nicotine. The stress is still there.”

So part of the counseling gets tobacco users to pursue genuine stress relievers, such as exercising, deep breathing and meditation.

McMillen said it’s difficult to pinpoint how many Pitt-Bradford students use tobacco products. People tend to overestimate the number of smokers, she said, because they’re visible in outdoor smoking areas.It’s also hard to gauge how many students use smokeless tobacco, since its usage is less noticeable. McMillen notes, however, that rural areas where kids, and especially boys, follow baseball closely and where they are children of farmers, tend to have a higher percentage of tobacco chewers.

Strategies to quit tobacco use vary widely, she said. “Nicotine patches work for some, but not for everybody. Some find it helpful to get rid of all smoking paraphernalia. Personally, when I quit, I kept seven unopened packs in my apartment. I didn’t want to quit because the cigarettes were unavailable. I wanted to quit because they were available, to quit for myself.”

Students also are at an age when many ignore health threats of all types. “The think they’re invincible. It’s human nature.”

This is one reason that peer influence is effective, McMillen said. The five student helpers, dubbed Panthers Against Tobacco, were awarded $500 per term tuition remission to help develop and implement the program. The criteria to earn the scholarship included writing a 300-word essay on career goals and working an average of five hours a week on the campaign.

The students manned tables at various events, distributing anti-tobacco literature and talking with fellow students. They also hosted a Chinese New Year’s Eve party, where students could have fun while also hearing the anti-tobacco message, and gave Valentines to students that included similar messages.

The $30,000 grant also funded:

• Equipment used in a new 1-credit course Tobacco: Physiology and Sociology, which is being taught by Mark Bailey, assistant professor of sport and exercise science. The course has been popular with students who plan health-care careers.

• Tobacco-cessation training from the American Lung Association for McMillen and Leslie Rhinehart, Pitt-Bradford director of counseling services.

• A recreational sports incentive program that gives activity discounts to those students who attend a presentation about the dangers of tobacco.

• Anti-tobacco materials, such as books, videos and DVDs.

“We’re getting the word out there,” McMillen said. “You don’t want to be in their face too much, but many of the activities, like smoke-free bowling nights, were for fun primarily, with education as part of it.”

UPB is seeking a grant renewal for the Clean McKean partnership, an agency funded by the Pennsylvania Department of Health through the state’s portion of the tobacco master settlement agreement. “This program really is dear to my heart. The most important thing a person can do to impact his or her life is to quit smoking.”

—Peter Hart

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