Seventh-day Adventists need to reprioritize their historic anti-tobacco message, church health officials say.
At the forefront of the smoking-cessation movement for decades, the church’s efforts have lately lost their edge, says Adventist world church Health Ministries Associate Director Dr. Peter Landless.
The challenge to regroup comes as anti-smoking advocates gear up for this year’s World No Tobacco Day. The annual emphasis day, observed May 31 and sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO), is meant to educate policymakers and the public about the tobacco industry’s tactics.
This year, WHO organizers will focus on ways to counter tobacco advertising. The tobacco industry continues to fight a U.S. policy that would require cigarette manufacturers to display large, graphic warning labels over 50 percent of each cigarette pack. Adventist health officials welcomed the plan last year and continue to advocate for its enforcement through petitions and by enlisting the support of opinion leaders and policymakers.
In recent years, enthusiasm for the anti-smoking movement among local Adventists has dwindled. But “member fatigue,” as Landless puts it, is only partly to blame. Responsible too are the challenges brought by a new strain of smokers. Those likely to quit already have, leaving a comparatively small but tenacious population of smokers in the United States, he says. Other countries, such as Australia, have seen a similar decrease in smokers.
Elsewhere, smoking remains endemic. Most worrisome are low and middle income countries, many of which Landless says lack the public health education initiatives, healthcare infrastructure and government inclination to mount a compelling anti-tobacco message. Still, the “smoking cessation banner has not been dropped,” he says. The church’s stop-smoking program continues to work in numerous countries, including The Philippines and South Korea.
Landless hopes a revamped Breathe Free smoking-cessation program and a pledge to turn churches into community health centers will inject the Adventist anti-smoking movement with new energy. Revised curriculum and materials for Breathe Free are expected by the end of the year, he said.
Breathe Free grew out of the church’s touchstone smoking-cessation program, the 5-Day Plan to Stop Smoking. Today, Landless would like to see Breathe Free include an online, interactive approach designed for a modern audience that may find attending nightly meetings difficult. Landless also wants Breathe Free to embrace the pharmacological side of quitting.
“I think it’s always been thought that with enough faith and enough support, anyone can stop smoking,” he says. “Honest appraisal of the facts has led us to understand that this is not the case. It is unfair for those of us who are not shackled by nicotine addiction to infer and state that willpower will always triumph.”
Pharmacological support doesn’t discount trust in God, Landless says, but evidence-based tools, such as temporary nicotine replacement therapy, can significantly increase a smoker’s chance of quitting.
“Another component that we haven’t adequately embraced in the past is the need to network with healthcare providers in facilitating stop-smoking intervention,” he says.
For example, Landless says, if a smoker who also struggles with depression quits, the consequences could be deadly. It’s crucial that smokers who plan to quit notify their doctors beforehand and obtain the necessary clearance and pharmacological support where appropriate, he says.
Turning every Adventist Church into a community health center is one way to promote communication between Breathe Free leaders and healthcare providers, Landless says. He and other Adventist health officials envision local churches serving as neighborhood hubs for smoking-cessation and other health information, education and support. The church's recent partnership with the Pan American Health Organization further urges congregations to work with local governments and health organizations in supporting public health.
But potential quitters must know that Adventist care comes free of ulterior motives, Landless says.
“Our efforts to assist people with smoking cessation must reflect the gracious love of Christ as opposed to a veiled hook. We’ve had scores of people who have related their relationship to God -- not an immediate impact, but years down the line -- to Adventists because they felt they were helped by people who cared. We really need to do this as a ‘no strings attached’ service to the community,” he says.
The outcome could help reverse statistics that say tobacco will claim an estimated 1 billion lives this century, Landless says. Already, he adds, 5 million people die per year from tobacco-related health complications. And in China alone, there are some 350 million smokers.
“You’re looking at a huge problem,” Landless says.
“We’ve got to help. Every church must be actively involved in offering smoking prevention education and supporting cessation,” he adds. “The health leadership of the church must also take responsibility and continue to promote and model innovative leadership in stop-smoking initiatives and anti-tobacco advocacy.