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Tobacco Free Allegheny – Changing Community Norms About Tobacco
By Kevin Brown

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable disease, disability, and death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Further, the United States spends nearly $170 billion each year on medical care to treat smoking-related disease in adults.

Tobacco Free Allegheny, one of eight regional primary contractors statewide for the Pennsylvania Department of Health Tobacco Control Program, is working to eliminate the use of tobacco in Allegheny County and save some of those costs.

“Our mission is to change the community norms surrounding tobacco, making it uncommon to see, use, or be negatively affected by tobacco or tobacco smoke pollution,” says Tiffany Babinsack, MPA, TTS, program manager for Tobacco Free Allegheny.

“We have three main areas of focus: prevention, education and cessation,” Tiffany explains. Under prevention and education, Tobacco Free Allegheny works with schools, colleges and universities, employers, health care facilities, communities and others to offer programming to reduce or eliminate the use of tobacco. Under cessation, Tobacco Free Allegheny refers tobacco users to the Pennsylvania Free Quitline – an evidence-based, no-cost cessation counseling service offered through a partnership with National Jewish Health. They also work with a number of local providers for in-person and virtual cessation services.

Tobacco Free Allegheny not only targets adults for tobacco control, but they offer special programming for teens and young adults through schools and on college campuses.

Tiffany explains that most tobacco users start as teens so they focus part of their efforts on teaching teens as well as parents and teachers about the dangers of e-cigarettes and tobacco use.

“We partner with a lot of the local schools to do evening parent and teacher education,” she says. “For middle and high schools, we focus on e-cigarettes and vaping in addition to combustible cigarettes. We'll teach a couple of high school classes during their health period about prevention just to make sure they know what these products are and the implications of using them.” she says.

Federal law prohibits the sale of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to those under 21. Tobacco Free Allegheny is authorized to conduct compliance checks on all retailers of tobacco products in Allegheny County.

“We have a free toolkit on our website, and we send out retailer education packets to remind the licensed sellers what the laws are, proper methods of checking IDs, etc. We also have FDA-commissioned officers including adults and minors who will go into stores and attempt to make purchases,” Tiffany says.

“We check every single tobacco retailer in Allegheny County at least two times per year so they know we're out there,” she notes. Retailers that sell tobacco products to minors can be fined and lose their tobacco retail license according to Tiffany.

On college campuses, Tobacco Free Allegheny uses a three-prong approach including education, guidance in rewriting policies for tobacco use, and smoking cessation support.

“We attend health fairs to talk to students and some of us will teach classes,” Tiffany says. “We meet with their committees to make sure that tobacco use is high on their priority list. We also work with administration and committees to rewrite their policies in a comprehensive way, so it’s not just ‘We don't smoke here,’ but more like ‘We don't accept donations from tobacco organizations.’ Finally, we make sure they have the infrastructure in place to provide quitting support to those who use tobacco products.”

At the community level, Tobacco Free Allegheny works with local governments to implement tobacco control measures through programs like Young Lungs at Play which provides smoke-free support and signage for parks, playgrounds, swimming pools, basketball courts and other recreational facilities where youth gather.

“Any municipality within Allegheny County could contact us and we would help them get community buy-in, write their policy, attend town council meetings and talk to council members and the community to make sure it's best suited to their needs. Once they vote that policy into law for the municipality, we provide them with all the Young Lungs at Play signage for free,” notes Tiffany.

Other groups among Tobacco Free Allegheny’s market are employers, multi-unit housing, hospitals, and treatment centers. “Behavioral health facilities are a big one for us,” says Tiffany. “People with behavioral health concerns typically smoke about 50 percent more and at a higher rate.”

Cessation support remains an important part of Tobacco Free Allegheny’s mission. “Quitting is very difficult,” Tiffany says. “The best, most effective way to quit using tobacco is a combination of behavioral counseling and nicotine replacement therapy like the patch, gum or lozenge. Traditionally, those are very expensive, especially for people who are underinsured. We can provide both of those aspects at no cost through 1-800-QUIT-NOW and our contracted cessation service providers.”

While COVID-19 restrictions have temporarily affected access to schools and other groups, Tobacco Free Allegheny remains committed to achieving their mission and the goals of the PA Tobacco Control Program. Many prevention and training services have continued through the use of virtual platforms, as well as telehealth cessation. Tiffany notes that, as restrictions are lifted, they will resume activities and events that have been curtailed.

To learn more about Tobacco Free Allegheny’s work or to seek help with tobacco use, visit their website at www.tobaccofreeallegheny.org, contact Tiffany at tbabinsack@tobaccofreeallegheny.org, or call their office at (412) 322-8321.

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