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Talking with … An anti-tobacco crusader

Name: Stanton Glantz

Age: 69

City: San Francisco

Position: Professor of medicine at UCSF, director of Center for Tobacco Control, Research and Education

Stanton Glantz

J.: It’s been a few years since the fight against big tobacco was a big news item. Where does that fight stand now?

Stanton Glantz: We haven’t solved the problem but we’ve made dramatic progress. Here in California, for example, we’ve dramatically cut the smoking rate down to 11 or 12 percent, and most smokers are relatively light smokers. But there are still millions of smokers. And the tobacco companies have become more active in the state Legislature. California has the 33rd lowest cigarette tax rate in the country. Jerry Brown is the first governor in decades to take tobacco campaign money.

I was surprised to find that you’re not an M.D. Your education was in engineering, including your undergrad, master’s and Ph.D. studies. How did you first get into anti-tobacco work?

I started out as a rocket scientist. I worked in several different areas at NASA, but I spent the largest amount of my time working in the mission planning and analysis divisions where we actually design the missions. I got interested in a project to use the same kind of methods that are used to control spacecraft to control anesthesia, which turns out to be a harder problem. That led to a dissertation on how the heart muscle works. Then I spent the first chunk of my career as an academic doing bioengineering, applying engineering concepts to how the heart and cardiovascular system work. And then the tobacco stuff was sort of a hobby that I got interested in in the late ’70s. It’s become a big part of my life, but I still do cardiovascular research and publish in those journals.

One of your projects is called SmokeFreeMovies, which has a website where people can see which current movies include smoking. What’s the goal of that campaign and what kind of success have you had with it?

Smoking in the movies is the major reason kids start smoking. I realized that we weren’t going to solve this talking with studios in the backrooms because tobacco has been putting money into Hollywood going back a long time. So we started this public campaign to get smoking out of movies. The six major studios now have policies discouraging smoking in their youth-rated movies. The amount of smoking in movies in 2015 was about half what it once was. The big goal for the next year is to get rid of the remaining half.

There’s a lot of new research on e-cigarettes. What is their impact and what do people need to know?

It’s true that heating up a [nicotine] solution does not create as many cancer-causing chemicals — but most people who are using e-cigarettes are not abandoning regular cigarettes, but using the two together. The odds of quitting smoking are 28 percent lower in smokers who use e-cigarettes compared to smokers who don’t. More kids are starting nicotine addictions through e-cigarettes, and those who do are more likely to go on to smoke regular cigarettes. San Francisco has integrated e-cigarettes into its indoor clean air law, but Alameda County just refused to.

The tobacco industry has twice sued the University of California over your work. What can you tell me about that?

On May 12, 1994, I got a box of purloined industry documents sent to me anonymously. The tobacco companies sued the university, trying to prevent us from releasing them, and we beat them. The second time, the tobacco industry claimed indoor smoking laws would destroy restaurant revenue, but our research found that to be false. So they sued the university on that, and it was dismissed because they didn’t have a case. But the tobacco companies are bullies with infinite money so they appealed it all the way up the Supreme Court. They lost.

Do Jewish ethics play a role in your work?

They play a big role. Historically, Jews have been on the edge, and we’re willing to take some risks that some others might not. Underlying attitudes built into Jewish culture have certainly been an element in why I am who I am and why I do what I do. My wife and I are members of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, and my wife is very active. We do Shabbos every week and always have, but I’m more into the ethical and prophetic part of the Jewish tradition, rather than ritualistic stuff.

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