Educator makes big impact on local health

by George Sedlacek

November brings two health observances the Marquette County Health Department notes, both with pride and a bittersweet goodbye. We are celebrating National Health Educator Month and the thirty-first anniversary of the Great American Smokeout.
Many organizations employ health educators. Their duties range from providing specific educational assistance to children to prevent disease to working on community change strategies to reduce negative health behaviors that result in needlessly high premature deaths. Marquette County Health Department health educators work on emergency preparedness response plans, adolescent and family health programs, child passenger safety programs and coordinate community health coalitions. The idea is a simple one: preventing a disease is much better than trying to cure a disease. One health educator has had phenomenal success with improving the health of many of our residents.
0811locJim Harrington has been a health educator at the Marquette County Health Department since 1995. He has led a profound change in the smoking environment in Marquette County. In 1984, Marquette County had the state’s second highest smoking rate and by 2006, the state’s second lowest. This work over the past decade will lead to much improved health measures for the county in years to come.
Today there are 6,097 fewer smokers in Marquette County, based on a smoking rate of twenty-six percent in 1997 versus fourteen percent in 2003. One in fifteen smokers develops lung cancer; thirty percent heart disease; eighty percent chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; thirty percent other cancers. This lower smoking rate will result in a lifetime reduction of 406 fewer lung cancer cases; 1,829 fewer cardiovascular disease cases; 244 less chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (emphysema) cases; and other forms of cancer. A total reduction of 2,826 fewer deaths caused by smoking over the next forty years. This benefit just doesn’t happen by itself.
In the early years, Harrington worked with the American Cancer Society’s Smokeout and the American Lung Association’s, “Freedom From Smoking Clinic.” The work with individual smokers was rewarding. But from a population viewpoint, while the department was helping individuals win the battle, we were losing the war. For every adult who quit, two to three children took their place by the time they graduated. It was clear tactics had to change to the same ones employed by the tobacco industry to gain new “customers,” largely youth.
Counter-tobacco advertising projects using youth themselves changed the dynamic. Harrington worked closely with several schools, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan and the media to put up dozens of billboards and TV spots such as the famous “Rip it Out Campaign” that sent ripped out tobacco magazine adds stuffed into a body bag down the Ishpeming Toboggan Run and the Pine Mountain Ski Jump. The message—Go away big tobacco and don’t come back—was very effective. With this work and the work of others, youth smoking rates began to drop and continue to do so today.
When Harrington started, very few Marquette County restaurants and workplaces were smoke-free. The health department itself took many years to become smoke-free. Thanks to Harrington and the Marquette County Tobacco Free Coalition, this is now the standard for all workplaces. He worked with individual restaurants, municipalities, work sites and individual smokers to help them quit the habit. Just as most of us take smoke-free air on planes for granted, our children in the not-too-distant future will not have to experience tobacco smoke in any indoor facility.
Harrington is leaving the health department to move downstate. He will be missed by not only our health department, but by the many residents he has assisted over the years. Being a health educator, helping someone not get cancer is one of those “invisible” public health benefits.

—George Sedlacek

Editor’s Note: Harrington reminds us that there is a free quit smoking help line at 1-800-480-quit. Visit www.smokefreeup.org or www.mqthealth.org for details.

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